The First Step to Sin


Researchers invited one hundred people to participate in a study. They put participants in pairs. The task: to guess how many coins were in a series of jars. One participant would be shown large images, while the other would see only small, fuzzy images. The person who’d seen the large images would help the person who saw the small, fuzzy images to make good guesses.

The more accurate the guess by the person who had seen only the small, fuzzy image, the more both participants would receive.

They put the first person — the one who saw the large images — in an MRI machine. The researchers then added a twist: they told that person that the other participant would get rewarded the most for accurate guesses, but that they would get rewarded most if the other person overestimated the amount of coins in the jar. In other words, they incentivized the person who saw the large image to lie.

What happened?

Most volunteers who saw the large images lied only a little at the start. As the experiment went on, the lies grew. By the end of the study, most volunteers guided the other person to vastly overestimate the number of coins in the jar. When researchers removed the incentive to lie, guesses became more accurate.

Because the lying volunteers were in an MRI scanner, researchers were able to measure brain activity. At first, the parts of the brain that signal emotion, such as the amygdale, responded strongly, even though the lies were small. But with each lie, even as the lies grew bigger, researchers observed a reduction in the brain’s response. The more they lied, the easier the lies became.

They became habituated liars.

The first lie is the hardest. So is the first flirtation with someone who’s not your spouse, the first look at porn, or any other sin. We take a small step, not a big one, but it seems shocking to us that we could do such a thing.

Slowly, though, it gets easier. We take bigger and bigger steps. Even though we’re taking bigger steps now, we react even less. Pretty soon, we feel hardly anything at all.

Few of us set out to become habitual liars. Nobody wakes up one day and decides to become an adulterer or a porn addict. It happens gradually. The first few steps are hard, but then it gets easier until we hardly feel anything at all.

In other words, it’s best not to tell the first lie. It’s best not to take that second glance, or to compromise even one time. The first step’s the hardest, and we can use that fact to our advantage.

“Temptation gains power by persistent solicitations that beget thoughts that make evil less serious,” wrote John Owen. We grow comfortable with sin by degrees if we begin to entertain it at all.

Cultivate a zero tolerance policy for sin. Nobody is sinless, but that doesn’t mean that we have to make peace with our sin. Don’t settle for a little sin, because once you’ve settled for a little, the door’s open for more, and pretty soon you’ll be overcome with sin while hardly noticing it at all.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada