Leaders Make Better Liars

According to new research:

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.


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.”

Posted on March 30, 2010 at 1:59 PM31 Comments


HJohn March 30, 2010 2:09 PM

Not too surprising. I remember a study where better liars also tended to naturally be leaders of the pack, probably largely due to their above average charisma and ability to persuade. Seems to be their charisma and ability to lie/pursuade/manipulate is often a cause of their success, not necessarily a result of it.

Of course, higher up people tend to be held to less scrutiny as well. And also tends to be the recipient of pleasing behaviors (sort of like how even the worst jokes get big laughs when told by a boss or even a dictator). So that no doubt factors in, perhaps creatign a little more persuasion in the less charismatic and a little more ego in the already egotistical.

I’m chuckling at imaging some of the conclusions soon to be posted here.

andyinsdca March 30, 2010 2:24 PM

I’m not sure that there’s a cause and effect relationship here. Maybe liars are attracted to positions of power in greater numbers than non-liars?

John D March 30, 2010 2:30 PM

No surprise here: a certain amount of confidence is required to make a persuasive claim. Belief in the truth of the claim can often (though not always) supply confidence. But some have confidence enough already (“confidence men” anyone?).

John D March 30, 2010 2:31 PM

No surprise here: a certain amount of confidence is required to make a persuasive claim. Some people have confidence enough already. The rest of us get our confidence from the belief that the claim is true.

HJohn March 30, 2010 2:35 PM

@andyinsdca: “Maybe liars are attracted to positions of power in greater numbers than non-liars?”

I’m sure they are. They are also more willing to smear, step over others, downplay others, and exaggerate their own value, in order to get ahead.

That’s not to say that everyone who gets ahead is dishonest. I know many honest yet powerful people. It is to say that he who will do whatever it takes has an advantage over he who limits himself.

John Jenkins March 30, 2010 3:27 PM

Lawyers refer to this as “believing your own bullshit” and it is important when making a case to juries sometimes.

BF SKinner March 30, 2010 3:41 PM

Belive your own BS? Yeah maybe, but I think HJohn get’s closer too it…”or feeling bad”

I’d like to see how well this correlates with sociopathy among leaders.

HJohn March 30, 2010 3:49 PM

I’m sure most of us have worked with the types who belittle others, often so subtly that it goes unnoticed for what it is, while making sure the bosses know everything they do and how wonderful it (supposedly) is, then we all get steamed when they get the promotion.

I also think some people have a hard time distinguishing between arrogance and confidence. Sometimes, an arrogance of self is misinterpreted as confidence in what one is saying.

Henning Makholm March 30, 2010 3:59 PM

Yes, there surely is a selection effect in real life, i.e. people who can lie convincingly (and not get caught) are in general more likely to end up in positions of trust.

However, the research reported in the article was a RANDOMIZED experiment: Subjects were assigned leader/underling roles by coin tosses, and those who (by pure chance) ended up in leader roles turned out to be better liars.

Unless the experimental protocol was compromised, this points to a causal relation FROM the leadership role TO better lying.

HJohn March 30, 2010 4:21 PM

@Henning Makholm: “However, the research reported in the article was a RANDOMIZED experiment: Subjects were assigned leader/underling roles by coin tosses, and those who (by pure chance) ended up in leader roles turned out to be better liars.”

Excellent point. I do think this points to the certitude that comes with being having authority. The one who is more forceful and insistent is usually the one who has the power (be it a boss, or a bully, etc.)…and the confidence that somes with knowing you will get your way. A large biker would be more likely to have more certitude in his words than a small, frail bookworm. However, you put a gun in the hands of the bookworm and its amazing how the way they deal with each other changes.

I think it is a symptom of how people behave when faced with different options. For a business example, look at middle managers. The same person who is an intolerant, rude person to their staff may be the most patient, congenial person in the building when it comes to the CEO. Why? Because the boss may not always be right, but the boss is always the boss.

Options make the world go round. Interstingly, I’ve been writing several articles over the past few months about formulating security strategies in a way where the employee’s best interests are lined up with what’s most secure.

Slarty March 30, 2010 7:59 PM

I thought Leader & Liar were synonyms anyway?

Or was that Lawyer?

And then there are Leaders who are Lawyers…

t13 March 30, 2010 10:16 PM

Like {HJohn} said, some people get to the position of leadership by lying.
We assume that the experiment is valid for all samples of inputs, thanks to {Henning Makholm} to point that out.
In conclusion there exists some really unscrupulous leaders.

Archer March 30, 2010 10:56 PM

As George once said on Seinfeld- “Remember, Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Daniel March 30, 2010 11:15 PM

“There is no such thing as confidence. There is, strictly speaking, only people who are confident.” American psychologist William James, 1894.

@Henning Makholm. Correlation does not equal causation. Like most studies on psychology Bruce links too, it’s a garbage study. Good for getting published; not so good for illuminating anything.

Jesus March 31, 2010 1:00 AM

This research was done at a Business School.
Will it be a tool of the trade, or more like a warning?

Tom T. March 31, 2010 3:21 AM

Joke from the 90s, explaining President Clinton’s womanizing:

“To get elected, you have to be charming, charismatic, and tell people what they want to hear. And those happen to be the exact same qualities that get a guy laid.”

@ John Jenkins: Is this the same John Jenkins that I know from another site? If so, what a pleasant surprise to see you here!

As far as your quote, “Lawyers refer to this as “believing your own bullshit”, I’d always heard it as the definition of insanity:
“Insanity is believing your own bullshit.”

Clive Robinson March 31, 2010 4:33 AM

I was looking for a link about the “Psycopath (sociopath) 20 Points” and leadership.

Apparently there is a recognised series of traits that can be used to identify a psycopath.

And it has been used on business leaders, and it is found they score higher the further up the ladder they are…

There also appears to be a connection with “living inside and outside of your head”, that is those who live inside their head (the “geek” types) tend to be less socialy successfull whilst those who live inside the heads of others (the “networking” types) tend to be social successfull.

Now the question arises if you are an out and out psycopath does your social skills then define how you behave (business leader or serial offender) any more than your IQ…

From primate studies we also know that the amount of control you have on your environment both physicaly and socialy has a critical effect on your health.

That is arterial and thus heart problems appear related to not just your current position within a “troop” but also your previous position.

That is there is a “ratchet effect” the higher you go the more slighted and under stress you feel if you are marginalised or made to feel “put down”.

Many studies show this with humans as well, which brings me around to (@) Henning Makholm’s, observation from the articale,

“However, the research reported in the article was a RANDOMIZED experiment: Subjects were assigned leader/underling roles by coin tosses, and those who (by pure chance) ended up in leader roles turned out to be better liars.”

Now let’s make an assumption that the members of the test group where all more or less equal in their positions within their respective “home groups”.

When put in a low or non competative (learning) environment stress levels would be low amongst the test group members as they would be in “networking” mode not “leadership” mode. That is trying to find who would be of use to them in the future.

However they had their “leadership” positions enforced on them by a random selection over which they had little or no control. Those that got the leader roles would feel comfortable as though they where in either the same position or elevated position with respect to their norm within their “home group”.

Those not put in a leadership role would conversly not be comfortable (ratchet effect), they would feel slighted and under stress and possibly even vengfull.

As most investigators know those under stress tend to overcompensate and often come across as lying when infact they are not.

Thus simple stress from being “demoted” may well account for the experimental results seen.

There is of course also the “luck of the draw” to account for as well. That is on this occasion the random selection may just have aligned with the peoples abilities…

Thus it’s the usual problem of “insufficient experimental data for valid interpretation of effects seen”.

Muffin March 31, 2010 6:27 AM


“I’m not sure that there’s a cause and effect relationship here. Maybe liars are attracted to positions of power in greater numbers than non-liars?”

In this study at least, people were apparently assigned randomly to the “leader” and “subordinate” groups. “Correlation does not imply causation” is a good thing to keep in mind, but it shouldn’t blindly be applied without RTA.

alwaystotallycandid March 31, 2010 6:34 AM

Interesting article. Sample size for the study?

Is this why the word confidence is part of the word con artist? Line of con?

Mark R March 31, 2010 7:50 AM

Reminds me of the old John Lovitz sketch:

“Hello, my name is Tommy Flanagan, and I’m a member of Pathological Liars Anonymous.” “In fact.. I’m the president of the organization! “

HJohn March 31, 2010 8:49 AM

@Nathan Tuggy: Where might those articles be? Links, please? I’d love to read them.

I’m trying to get one of them on a local audit chapter’s web page currently, but none are available on the web at this point. Two went to print in a local advisory (one about keeping children safe online, the other about business security practices).

I’ll cite one business example I used, as to not take over Bruce’s post. In one, I argued with a sector standard that mandated a password minimum age of 15, with the rationalization that users would have to tell security admin if they thought their password was compromised. I contended that such a user would be more likely to keep his mouth shut and hope for the best rather than risk embarassment or reprimand, and play dumb if something happened. On the other hand, if they were permitted to change it, they would probably change it to avoid a possible compromise. In the latter, the best interest of the employee was more secure, whereas in the former the best interest of the employee was less secure. There are other examples (ID theft, timekeeping) is used, but its too much here, but that’s the jist.

I only mentioned it since my previous research agreed that people behave differently when their choices are different (Bruce wrote about something similar in Psychology of Security when he discussed the Prospect Theory). In regards to this post, the subjects in the study lied better when they were in power largely because they were faced with different options.


DrLightman March 31, 2010 9:23 AM

They were saying essentially the same thing back in the first season of “Lie to Me”.

Jason March 31, 2010 11:26 AM

The nature of the position of “leader” demands respect. The words of a leader are given greater weight.
They don’t have to be good liars since what they say will be taken as more true than what some guy next to you says.

It is more about who the audience considers the authority. Whoever the authority is will be trusted to speak truthfully.

Imagine Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh both listening to the same broadcast of President Obama. To Al, Obama would be speaking the truth, to Rush, Obama would be speaking half-truths and lies.

The words are the same, but the perception of the “leader” is different.

Even if Obama were lying, Al would be more likely to miss it.

General Lee March 31, 2010 11:31 AM

To quote my friend: The most important trait of leadership is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.

paul April 2, 2010 12:54 PM

What a reality-based article. Everyone knows that real leaders create their own reality. So they’re not lying, they’re simply changing the world. (This goes a little along with the article’s bit on fear of consequences. Many of us know that when a manager tells a falsehood about what can be done it’s the subordinates’ job to make it true or face the consequences.)

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.