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The researchers found that subjects assigned leadership roles were buffered from the negative effects of lying. Across all measures, the high-power liars — the leaders —resembled truthtellers, showing no evidence of cortisol reactivity (which signals stress), cognitive impairment or feeling bad. In contrast, low-power liars — the subordinates — showed the usual signs of stress and slower reaction times. “Having power essentially buffered the powerful liars from feeling the bad effects of lying, from responding in any negative way or giving nonverbal cues that low-power liars tended to reveal,” Carney explains.
It’s an unsettling finding that prompts a number of questions, the first of which is, if powerful people can lie without suffering consequences, are they prone to lie more? “Even a very ethical person who suddenly finds herself in a position of power is probably going to notice on a conscious or unconscious level that lying no longer feels bad,” Carney says. “We can’t say empirically that power makes a person lie more, but the evidence does suggest that power would make you lie more easily and therefore more often.”
Carney emphasizes that these results don’t mean that all people in high positions find lying easier: people need only feel powerful, regardless of the real power they have or their position in a hierarchy. “There are plenty of CEOs who act like low-power people and there are plenty of people at every level in organizations who feel very high power,” Carney says. “It can cross rank, every strata of society, any job.”
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