Defend Your Research: Powerful People Are Better Liarsby Dana Carney
The finding: A sense of power buffers individuals from the stress of lying and increases their ability to deceive others.
The study: Dana Carney divided research subjects into two groups: bosses and employees. Bosses got larger offices and more power; they were asked, for instance, to assign employees’ salaries. Half of all subjects were instructed by a computer to steal a $100 bill. If they could convince an interviewer they hadn’t taken it, they could keep it. The other subjects were questioned as well. In the interviews, lying bosses displayed fewer involuntary signs of dishonesty and stress. On all measures, liars with power were hard to distinguish from subjects telling the truth.
The challenge: Does this mean the most powerful people in the world are adept liars? Professor Carney, defend your research.
Carney: We measured subjects on five variables that indicate lying—involuntary shoulder shrugs, accelerated speech, the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, cognitive impairment, and emotional distress. Only the low-power liars could be “seen” as lying; the readings for the liars with power were essentially the same as those for truth tellers on all five variables. People with power lied more easily and effectively, which is troubling. Just as kids don’t touch a stove once they learn it burns them, people don’t like to lie because it hurts them emotionally and physiologically. These data suggest that powerful individuals—CEOs, portfolio managers, politicians, elite athletes—don’t get burned when they touch the figurative stove. They seem to be more physiologically “prepared” to lie, which could lead to their lying more often.
HBR: So power begets lying, which begets more power, and so on?
It’s hard to tell from this study, where power was a temporary situation. But if someone is constantly in a powerful position, does their lying improve? Does improved lying lead to more power? Those are questions for the next studies. What we’ve shown here is that if you give people power, they’re more comfortable lying, and it will be harder to tell they’re doing it.
It’s hard to believe you can suss out a lie based on shrugs, speech, and saliva.
>The nonverbal cues are extremely reliable to people who are trained to detect them. We set up a high-stakes lie about a transgression. When people commit that kind of lie, they do these involuntary half-shrugs and speak faster. That’s why we ask control questions about the weather, so we know how fast they talk and how much they shrug normally. I’m a trained expert, and I’m about 90% accurate in telling when people are lying based on these nonverbal cues. A-Rod? I could see he was lying. There are lots of other cases where it’s just unbelievably obvious.