The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous”. And so the BIG LIE idea, 16 years after Hitler had first used the term in Mein Kampf, passed into popular usage.
I thought of this when I read about Stephen Wilce. He was, until exposed by TV journalists, New Zealand’s Chief Defence Scientist and had a high security clearance and access to highly sensitive information.
According to his CV he had been in both MI5 and MI6, played international rugby for Wales, swam for England in the Commonwealth games, competed in the bobsleigh in the Winter Olympics, been a member of the New Zealand yacht squadron, fought alongside Prince Andrew in the Falklands and Gulf wars, been decorated for bravery, and had an honorary PhD from Cambridge university.
He did have an MBA, had been in the Royal Navy, had competed in bobsleigh events, and had worked as a bar manager at the Americas Cup but everything else was pure fantasy. It sounds funny but how embarrassing after all the security vettings and selection processes.
So while Wilce was clearly a fantasist, research tells us that people in positions of power are better liars.
Dana Carney, at Columbia University Graduate School of Business carried out research to see if it made a difference if you had more power. The research subjects were divided into bosses, with bigger offices and more power eg they could assign salaries, and employees. Half of each group were then asked, via computer instructions, to steal a hundred-dollar note then lie about it later when interviewed.
The subjects were then measured on 5 variables associated with lying:
- accelerated speech – liars utter more syllables at a higher pitch and repeat words and sentences more
- shoulder shrugs – liars shrug more when trying to suppress the lie
- cortisol – liars’ saliva contains a higher concentration of the stress hormone
- eyes – liars’ pupils dilate
- mouth – liars press their lips together and involuntarily smirk when they think they’ve got away with it
Only the low-power liars could be seen to be lying. High-power liars were indistinguishable from non-liars. A sense of power seems to buffer people from the stress of lying and increases their ability to deceive others. As most people can’t detect liars better than chance unless specially trained it suggests most people in a position of power can get away with it. Perhaps they are in positions of power because they are good liars. (See “Leadership – the dark side“)
Occasionally of course powerful people get caught out lying. MPs are a case in point and many lost their seats following the expenses scandal exposed by the press. More significantly perhaps, former Labour Minister Phil Woollas has been found guilty of contravening an old statute that prohibits “false statements” against a rival’s “character or conduct”. He accused his Lib Dem opponent of cosying up to Islamic militants (this was particularly sensitive in a town that had been the centre of race riots previously). His appeal against the decision – which means the election will be re-run – continues.
Another aspect of the research was about power posture compared with low power, non-assertive postures. Power postures take up more space, like a peacock spreading its feathers, whilst subordinates want to take up less space.
The researchers found that those people asked to adopt power postures, even though they didn’t know why, had higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol. In other words they felt more powerful and less stressed out.