Focused Cognitive Control in Dishonesty: Evidence for Predominantly Transient Conflict Adaptation

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Giving a dishonest response to a question entails cognitive conflict due to an initial activation of the truthful response. Following conflict monitoring theory, dishonest responding could therefore elicit transient and sustained control adaptation processes to mitigate such conflict, and the current experiments take on the scope and specificity of such conflict adaptation in dishonesty. Transient adaptation reduces differences between honest and dishonest responding following a recent dishonest response. Sustained adaptation has a similar behavioral signature but is driven by the overall frequency of dishonest responding. Both types of adaptation to recent and frequent dishonest responses have been separately documented, leaving open whether control processes in dishonest responding can flexibly adapt to transient and sustained conflict signals of dishonest and other actions. This was the goal of the present experiments which studied (dis)honest responding to autobiographical yes/no questions. Experiment 1 showed robust transient adaptation to recent dishonest responses whereas sustained control adaptation failed to exert an influence on behavior. It further revealed that transient effects may create a spurious impression of sustained adaptation in typical experimental settings. Experiments 2 and 3 examined whether dishonest responding can profit from transient and sustained adaption processes triggered by other behavioral conflicts. This was clearly not the case: Dishonest responding adapted markedly to recent (dis)honest responses but not to any context of other conflicts. These findings indicate that control adaptation in dishonest responding is strong but surprisingly focused and they point to a potential trade-off between transient and sustained adaptation.

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