Remorseless Power

Making people feel powerful makes them good at lying:

Dana Carney divided research subjects into two groups: bosses and employees. Bosses got larger offices and more power; they were asked, for instance, to assign employees’ salaries. Half of all subjects were instructed by a computer to steal a $100 bill. If they could convince an interviewer they hadn’t taken it, they could keep it. The other subjects were questioned as well. In the interviews, lying bosses displayed fewer involuntary signs of dishonesty and stress. … We measured subjects on five variables that indicate lying—involuntary shoulder shrugs, accelerated speech, the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, cognitive impairment, and emotional distress. Only the low-power liars could be “seen” as lying; the readings for the liars with power were essentially the same as those for truth tellers on all five variables. (more)

I’d always heard that the reason humans can’t lie well is because our minds are leaky, sending signals about our anxiety every which way.  But this result suggests not; it suggests we are quite capable of lying well, but are designed to not always use that full capacity.  So now I’ll guess the same thing holds for blushing; we often reveal feelings we think we want to hide via blushing, but are quite capable of not doing so if we feel powerful enough.

I’ve been posting lots lately on ways we seem to give the powerful a pass, not holding them to the same high standards we hold others, perhaps for deference or fear of retribution.  So now I’ll guess that we blush and leak lies out of a fear of a larger punishment if we are caught; for the non-powerful, the punishment for a norm violation when we give out such clues that we feel guilty about our violation is far less than if we don’t give out such clues.  The powerful apparently needn’t fear such extra punishment for remorseless lies, though they do fear being caught lying.  Why?

Perhaps for our homo hypocritus ancestors, the implicit elites in a band were better able to read such clues, either via better raw abilities or because power frees one to use such abilities (perhaps by reducing fear of retribution).  So by lying but giving off subtle clues about your lies you might have been saying to the elites, “I’m only lying to these other fools, not to you.”  When elites caught non-elites in well-hidden remorseless lies, they made sure to punish them much more severely.

FYI, one can also make folks feel powerful just by making their body take up more space:

You know how peacocks spread their feathers? What they’re doing is taking up more space, an assertion of power that’s common in animals. Cobras rear; birds spread their wings. Humans do it, too. Think of the CEO with his feet up on the desk, leaning back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head with elbows out … We found that people in power poses show higher testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels. They feel more powerful and less stressed out, just because they take up more space. When prompted, they take more risks than people in subordinate poses. (more)

Added 3p: The details that give away lies are much less reliably communicated to distant others.  You could get folks to clearly testify that someone had said certain words, but this would be much harder to do regarding how much speech was sped-up, or how unusual were any shoulder shrugs.  So to enforce an added punishment based on the presence of these added clues, one needs enough discretion to be able to act on one’s own judgement, rather than on what one can prove to outsiders.  Perhaps powerful folks can better prevent those they hurt with such lies from acting with such local discretion.

Added 7p: Perhaps this is like my suggestion that we “Choke to Submit“; perhaps lying with relaxed confidence is seen as a bid for high status, which if discovered will be squashed vigorously on those who can’t support such status.

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