The Two Brains Model Of Honesty

I had a conversation with a friend the other day about honesty. She mentioned that a person she knew has said that if you cheat on someone, and it only happens once, and you think it was a mistake, the ethical thing to do is not tell your partner because that can only cause them hurt.

We both disagree with this perspective, but at the same time, there is a point at which we both agree with it. Take the same scenario: you cheat, it was a mistake, it only happens once. This time, though, before you have a chance to talk to your partner about it, they get in an accident and you find out they have three days to live.

Do you tell them then?

Do you spend the last days you have together dealing with the cheating, knowing that it means this person’s last days on earth will be even more of a painful emotional roller coaster than they would have been otherwise as a result?

Or do you spare them that?

If you spare them that, then there is a point at which you buy the “It will only cause them hurt” line of reasoning against being honest. That point may be in different places for different people, but I think it exists for most of us. Where to draw the line, though, is a tricky question.

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that there is a model for thinking about this I haven’t thought of before. I’m calling it “The Two Brains Model”. It’s more or less this: when you decide to tell someone something difficult, there are two parts of them you have to take into account when considering what to say and how to say it. In keeping with popular terminology, we’ll call them the lizard brain and the primate brain.

This model will be imperfect. As the saying goes: all models are flawed, but some are useful.

The primate brain is the conscious, rational, aboveboard processing brain. The lizard brain is the unconscious, often irrational brain under the surface. If we were all primate brain all the time, then I would consider Radical Honesty the perfect model for being honest, but we aren’t. There is the lizard brain (home of the jerkbrain), which cannot be relied on to react rationally, which often produces insecurity, jealousy, envy, and other unpleasant things in response to unpredictable stimuli for irrational reasons.

The lizard brain cannot be ignored. The lizard brain responses are the reason honesty is so much more complicated than just telling the literal truth. It’s like a slightly deranged pet — sometimes tearing off on a rampage through the rest of the brain at the strangest things. The lizard brain rampage is the reason I have trouble justifying the idea of telling someone you cheated on them when they only have three days to live. It’s one thing to trigger that rampage if it’s something you have time to work through, it’s another if the person is going to be experiencing that rampage, literally, for the rest of their life.

It’s the lizard part of the brain that means you need to be careful about how you do honesty. It’s this part of the brain that means that even if you’re sharing the same information, the context in which you share it, the manner in which you share it, and how you talk about it once you’ve shared are all going to be crucial factors in determining what the outcome of your honesty is. You can be honest in ways that cause the cerebral lizard rampage, or you can try to be honest in ways that are less likely to trigger that rampage. The latter is the compassionate route. This isn’t to say that there aren’t sometimes things that need to be talked about that are almost guaranteed to cause the lizard brain rampage no matter how you bring them up – sometimes that’s going to happen and you’ve just got to dedicate yourself to dealing with the fallout. Most of the time, however, there are things you can do to minimize that risk.

The thing that I like about this model for thinking about how to do honesty is the way it nicely outlines the things that need to be considered when being honest. By this model, when being honest, you need to think about two things: what you are saying to the primate brain, and what you are saying to the lizard brain.

What you’re saying to the primate brain is easy. The primate brain interprets your words in a fairly straightforward, literal way. However, what you’re saying to the lizard brain may or may not have all that much to do with what you’re literally saying. If you want to say “I care about you” to the primate brain, you say “I care about you”. If you want to say “I care about you” to the lizard brain, you talk to it in a familiar, safe place, calmly; you offer physical comfort; maybe you take it out for ice cream; and, yes, you say “I care about you”.

I wrote a post a while back about the importance of being receptive to the honesty of others:

The quintessential cultural stereotype example of a person who fails to encourage honesty is the girlfriend who, when her boyfriend tells her he’s spent time with a female friend, immediately accuses him of cheating. Honesty rewarded with suspicion. The right way to go about that sort of situation if it makes you uncomfortable is to thank the person for telling you, and then say that it makes you uncomfortable and you’d like to talk through that discomfort. Or whatever similar pattern works; the point is: you don’t blame the other person for your hurt feelings.

In this scenario, the girlfriend is telling the boyfriend’s primate brain that she thinks he’s been cheating. What she’s telling his lizard brain is this: “When you are honest with me, you can expect hostility in return.” That is a very bad association to create. On the other hand, if she told her boyfriend she appreciated his honesty, and then expressed her discomfort, the message to the lizard brain is more like “This is kind of scary, but manageable, and may lead to progress”.

I read a quote once, a really long time ago, that went something like, “The most important lines in writing and poetry are the ones left unsaid.” It has always stuck with me, and I think it applies magnificently to communication in general: sometimes, the most significant part of communication with people is what is left unsaid. The things that are implied by the manner in which you communicate, rather than the words you literally say. I think I may start using the two brains model a lot for conceptualizing how I communicate with people, both in terms of literal truth and in terms of the things that are left unsaid. It’s given me some food for thought over the last couple of days, at least.