When you are about to lie, or break your word, your conscience dives in to make you feel uncomfortable. ï¿½This is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” and what I call “the Jiminy Cricket effect” – afterï¿½Pinocchio’sï¿½friend.
The question is, can we know when Jiminy Cricket is waking up?
It turns out that the answer is yes.
Research byï¿½Thomas Baumgartner of the University of Zurich in Switzerland shows that, just before we break our word, brain scans show thatï¿½that certain brain areas become more active. ï¿½Regions near the front of the brain (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex) and the amygdala at the back light up in fMRI scans. ï¿½These areas are important in our feelings of emotion. Baumgartner speculated that their activityï¿½reveals an emotional conflict in someone who knows they are doing something wrong, or feels guilty.
Perhaps more worrying, the team also found that these and related areas were active when volunteers made promises that they intended to break, possibly leading to an ability to predict duplicitous or even criminal behaviour.
The areas at the front of the brain are involved in control of emotions, so it is not that Jiminy Cricket is not alert to the conflict – it is more that he stays silent and lets us get on with cheating.
More details in this fascinating New Scientist article from two years ago.