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Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Cognitive Control Promotes Either Honesty or Dishonesty, Depending on One's Moral Default

Speer, S. P., Smidts, A., & Boksem, M. A. S. (2021).
The Journal of Neuroscience, 41(42), 8815–8825. 


Cognitive control is crucially involved in making (dis)honest decisions. However, the precise nature of this role has been hotly debated. Is honesty an intuitive response, or is will power needed to override an intuitive inclination to cheat? A reconciliation of these conflicting views proposes that cognitive control enables dishonest participants to be honest, whereas it allows those who are generally honest to cheat. Thus, cognitive control does not promote (dis)honesty per se; it depends on one's moral default. In the present study, we tested this proposal using electroencephalograms in humans (males and females) in combination with an independent localizer (Stroop task) to mitigate the problem of reverse inference. Our analysis revealed that the neural signature evoked by cognitive control demands in the Stroop task can be used to estimate (dis)honest choices in an independent cheating task, providing converging evidence that cognitive control can indeed help honest participants to cheat, whereas it facilitates honesty for cheaters.

Significance Statement

Dishonesty causes enormous economic losses. To target dishonesty with interventions, a rigorous understanding of the underlying cognitive mechanisms is required. A recent study found that cognitive control enables honest participants to cheat, whereas it helps cheaters to be honest. However, it is evident that a single study does not suffice as support for a novel hypothesis. Therefore, we tested the replicability of this finding using a different modality (EEG instead of fMRI) together with an independent localizer task to avoid reverse inference. We find that the same neural signature evoked by cognitive control demands in the localizer task can be used to estimate (dis)honesty in an independent cheating task, establishing converging evidence that the effect of cognitive control indeed depends on a person's moral default.

From the Discussion section

Previous research has deduced the involvement of cognitive control in moral decision-making through relating observed activations to those observed for cognitive control tasks in prior studies (Greene and Paxton, 2009; Abe and Greene, 2014) or with the help of meta-analytic evidence (Speer et al., 2020) from the Neurosynth platform (Yarkoni et al., 2011). This approach, which relies on reverse inference, must be used with caution because any given brain area may be involved in several different cognitive processes, which makes it difficult to conclude that activation observed in a particular brain area represents one specific function (Poldrack, 2006). Here, we extend prior research by providing more rigorous evidence by means of explicitly eliciting cognitive control in a separate localizer task and then demonstrating that this same neural signature can be identified in the Spot-The-Difference task when participants are exposed to the opportunity to cheat. Moreover, using similarity analysis we provide a direct link between the neural signature of cognitive control, as elicited by the Stroop task, and (dis)honesty by showing that time-frequency patterns of cognitive control demands in the Stroop task are indeed similar to those observed when tempted to cheat in the Spot-The-Difference task. These results provide strong evidence that cognitive control processes are recruited when individuals are tempted to cheat.