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2 min read

The Neuroscience of Cheating

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By all accounts, Carl Shapiro was a shrewd businessman. He built Kay Windsor into one of the largest women's clothing companies in the US and became a billionaire several times over.

Over the course of 40 years, he invested a billion dollars with an investment advisor named Bernie Madoff. After Madoff was arrested for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history, Shapiro was shown to have lost more than $550 million dollars.   How could a brilliant man like Shapiro, over the course of 40 years of interactions with Madoff, not know he was being cheated?

Recently published research by Immersion's co-founders, Drs. Paul J. Zak and Jorge A. Barraza has identified brain signals that accurately predict who will cheat in a high-stakes setting even when a promise to cooperate was made.

In research funded by the U.S. Air Force, Zak, Barraza, and their colleagues were tasked with helping the U.S. government identify neurologic "tells" that would signal someone would cheat during negotiations.

The Air Force program manager needed to apply the findings to real life settings and instructed Zak and Barraza not to run an experiment that would be like "putting lipstick on a pig." In other words, the lab study had to be as close as possible to what people really do when they choose to cooperate or deceive others.

In the cheating study, Zak and Barraza designed a laboratory experiment that sought to be as close as possible to how people actually negotiate. The study was done in a comfortable house and only included working age participants (25-50), who socialized to get to know each other before making decisions over meaningful monetary stakes.

Participants would earn up to $530 in the experiment. While Zak and Barraza did not study CEOs negotiating a merger or politicians bargaining over a treaty, the realism of the experiment increases the confidence that its findings are useful in these types of situations.

Prior to decisions and after communicating with one's partner, participants were asked if they thought their partners would be trustworthy. This conscious assessment had zero predictive value. But, two neurologic signals revealing pre-decision stress responses predicted who would cheat with 86% accuracy.

Most of us will not bring devices to measure stress to a negotiation, but stress has behavioral "tells." These include foot tapping, sweating, fidgeting, lack of eye contact, and a quivering voice that could signal that a partner is about to cheat you.

But the use of devices in this experiment, proves that neurologic indicators predict behavior - such as lying. 

Immersion also captures neurologic indicators to predict future behavior. Just like this experiment, Immersion was designed to be useful in real life. Immersion captures brain responses where people actually consume content and have interesting experiences without any invasive equipment.

The term of art for this is "ecological validity" and Immersion is the only neuroscience technology that produces ecologically valid data. This give Immersion subscribers the confidence that what they measure is how real people respond in their real lives.

Zak, Paul J., Barraza, Jorge A., Hu, Xinbo, Zahedzadeh, Giti, and Murray, John. Predicting Dishonesty When the Stakes are High: Physiologic Responses During Face-to-Face Interactions Identifies Who Reneges on Promises to Cooperate. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience DOI=10.3389/fnbeh.2021.787905.

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