If you've ever heard the saying, "once a cheater, always a cheater," there's a reason for it — because, the perception is, most people who make such a selfish decision will never restrict themselves to just one time. And, as much as we think this phrase is worn out when discussing cheating relationships, a new study might support the claim that people who cheat really are more prone to doing it again... and again... and again.
The paper, entitled “The brain adapts to dishonesty,” is a recent study published for Nature Neuroscience, and claims that, each time a person lies, they feel less guilty about doing so. In other words, if your partner's already cheated on you once and lied about it, she/he will feel even less guilty or bad about it if/when they do it again.
So, why is this? According to the research, it has to do with the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which provides a negative response when humans lie. Unfortunately, each time someone's dishonest, the response in that brain's region weakens, leading to an almost internal acceptance.
People often perceive self-serving dishonesty as morally wrong and report uneasiness when engaging in such behavior. Consistent with these reports, physiological and neurological measures of emotional arousal are observed when people deceive. Blocking such signals pharmacologically results in significant increases in dishonesty.
For example, in one study, students who had taken and responded to a mild sympatholytic agent were twice as likely to cheat on an exam as those who took a placebo. Thus, in the absence of an affective signal that can help curb dishonesty, people may engage in more frequent and severe acts.
But how does this relate to cheaters in a relationship? The study answers that by saying this:
We speculate that the blunted response to repeated acts of dishonesty may reflect a reduction in the emotional response to these decisions or to their affective assessment and saliency.
In other words, as we stated above, these cheating acts begin to be so familiar and routine to the person that they eliminate the ability to emotional respond to the poor decision they're making, becoming immune to the behavior.
Here's what study author Neil Garrett had to say to Elite Daily
"What our study and others suggest is a powerful factor that prevents us from cheating is our emotional reaction to it, how bad we feel essentially, and the process of adaptation reduces this reaction, thereby allowing us to cheat more. With serial cheaters, it could be the case that they initially felt bad about cheating, but have cheated so much they’ve adapted to their ways and simply don’t feel bad about cheating any more. Another possibility is that they never felt bad about cheating to begin with, so they didn’t need adaptation to occur, they were comfortable with it from the get-go."
The study paired two people up to guess the amount of coins in a jar, with one person being told that, if his/her partner went over the actual amount, there would be a cash prize. Without the reward, people were more honest and helpful. However, once there was a financial incentive, people showed to be more dishonest — which was due to the amygdala.
This isn't to say that all cheaters will do it more than once, but, in addition to the saying, "once a cheater always a cheater," just remember this one, too: "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Or, in other words, don't get burned twice.
Lead image via Getty