CEOs are better at lying than the rest of us

(Originally published June 22, 2010)

You’ve heard it said that power corrupts. Researchers at Columbia Business School have figured out why, at least in part. It turns out that once people are given a little power, they find it easier to lie.

The average liar sends out “tells,” signs that he or she is lying. The act of lying causes negative emotions, physical stress and the fear of being caught, which in turn leads to behaviors such as fidgeting or a change in the rate of speech. When people gain power, the signs aren’t as likely to be seen.

“Power, it seems, enhances the same emotional, cognitive and physiological systems that lie-telling depletes,” said Dana Carney, a management professor at Columbia. “People with power enjoy positive emotions, increases in cognitive function and physiological resilience such as lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Thus, holding power over others might make it easier for people to tell lies.”

To test their hypothesis, Columbia researchers told some research subjects that they were to think of themselves as leaders and gave them large offices. Other subjects were told to think of themselves as subordinates and were given small, windowless offices.

All subjects were asked to find $100 nearby and then, through a computer, half were instructed to put the money back and half were instructed to steal the money.  All were then told to convince a researcher that they did not take the money. If they could convince the researcher – whether they were lying or not – they were promised that they could keep the money.

The subjects were taped to see whether they exhibited any signs of lying, and researchers also took saliva samples from them to gauge stress hormone levels. The “leaders” proved to be much more adept at lying without being caught than the “subordinates.”

Lying can be a valuable skill, and it can be used for ethically justifiable outcomes. We want a national leader, for example, to be able to bluff terrorists hellbent on destruction into believing that we hold the upper hand, even if we don’t in a specific situation.

Usually, however, people lie because they have something to hide or something to gain. Those in power face temptations to abuse their position, and if they are adept at lying, they can get away with it, at least for a while. I still believe that sooner or later, the truth will out. Until it does, liars can hurt many people and cause lots of damage.

That’s why it’s critically important to have leaders of integrity who are honest enough with themselves to know they are never immune from temptation. They welcome scrutiny and inspection, and they understand that their example and behavior set a tone for their entire organization.

Grammar tip: I passed a car on the road this morning. That event occurred in the past.