How good a liar are you? It turns out the answer to that question may depend on how much power you wield. A study performed by Dana Carney at Columbia University (not to be confused with Dana Carvey) suggests that with power comes an ability to lie more effectively. Lets take a step back, when people lie there comes with the act a number of emotions and cognitive repercussions that reveal themselves via various physiological cues. If any one has seen the TV show “Lie to Me” (which is based on actual research) you will be aware that our emotions tend to play out on our faces and by the way we move our bodies, however much we may try to suppress them. This new paper suggests that observing these cues in powerful people is more difficult than we thought.

In an experiment performed to look at this effect 50 participants were randomly assigned to a leadership or subordinate role. Several steps were taken to reinforce these roles, Firstly the group was given a leadership questionnaire and told that roles were assigned based on the result, actually it was random. Second the leaders were given large offices compared to the subordinates and the leaders were given the ability to award the subordinates all or only a portion of a $20 “paycheck”. Once this was complete, half of the participants were instructed to “steal” $100 dollars that they would then be able to keep if they could convince the experimenter, in an interview, that they had not stolen the money (ie lie).

The researchers measured variables that correlate with lying, including: behaviour (8 behaviours altogether), the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, cognitive impairment, and emotional distress. Behavioral cues were gauged from video taken during the interviews, an independent observer (unaware of the nature of the experiment) reviewed the videos and assessed the behaviours present. The specific behaviours looked at where those that both positively and negatively correlated with lying. Behaviors such as cooperativeness, immediacy and length of time spent speaking are all negatively correlated with lying (ie associated with the truth), while nervousness, uncertainty, lip presses, one-sided shoulder shrugs and increased speech tempo are all positively correlated with lying.

Cognitive impairment was measured using the Stroop task. If you are not familiar with this technique it involves flashing a word on screen and the subject must indicate the colour that the word is written in as quickly and as accurately as possible. Sometimes the colour and the word is the same (eg the word “blue” in blue) and sometimes it will be different (eg the word “Blue” in red), and sometimes the word will be neutral towards the colour (eg “Table” in blue). The subject’s reaction times are recorded and the difference in time between correct answers on the word/colour matches (“Blue” in blue) are compared to the word/colour mismatches (“Blue” in red). The differences between the times are indicative of cognitive impairment. Emotional distress was determined with a questionnaire, subjects rated themselves as bashful, guilty,
troubled or scornful on a 7 point scale. Higher scores indicated more emotional distress.

Those who were assigned to the subordinate role and who stole the money displayed the physiological correlates that predict lying, just as expected. However those that undertook the theft in the leadership group gave responses that were indistinguishable from the responses of truth tellers. In other words they were much better liars than the subordinates.

Lying is cognitively costly, the liar must actively suppress the truthful information as well as deal with the negative emotions evoked by the act of lying. Therefore ordinarily people cannot help but let their true feelings “leak” out in their behaviour.

In contrast it is suggested by the authors of this study that powerful people experience a buffering effect, this may be an inherent benefit that comes with the acknowledgement of power or it may come as a side benefit of knowing that the consequences of one’s actions may be mitigated by the power. In this scenario it is less cognitively costly to both lie and hide the effects of lying. Therefore powerful people are more able to lie more effectively.

Does this mean you should stop trusting your boss? I wouldn’t go that far. I would suggest that you can still gauge for yourself the trustworthiness of those in power over you by other means than direct observation. Still, if you really have trouble trusting your boss in this fashion, I think you might be in the wrong job.