Most People Are Bad at Spotting Liars

It never seems to go away. You know. The colleague you’re never sure you can trust. Or the one who regularly promises but rarely fulfills. And most of us are bad about spotting liars and deception. But there are a few things we know for certain about that tough subject. And for business folk, there’s one reality about deception that always rings true.

Powerful people are better liars and more difficult to spot. And Dana Carney of Columbia University as proved that. Those of us with a background in rhetoric and nonverbal research have believed this for years, but we’re glad to see that someone has at last validated our well-educated hunches.

Carney’s subjects were not politicians, at least not governmental politicians, but business bosses and employees.  The bosses, with larger offices and more power were tasked to do such things as assign employee salaries.  Half of all the research subjects were instructed by a computer to steal $100, and, if they could convince an interviewer that they didn’t take it, they could keep it.  The other subjects were also questioned in the interviews.  The interviewers were trained to identify deception.  (Although the article didn’t say so, it reflects the work of Paul Ekman, the expert in deception, who I referred to in a previous blog:  Reflections on BSing.)

The subjects were measured on five variables that indicate lying, variables that can’t be easily measured in any other context.

What the research shows is that “if you give people power, they’re more comfortable lying, and it will be harder to tell they’re doing it.”

When questioned about most people’s accuracy in spotting liars, the researchers followed through with the same conclusion as I’d given in my blog:  most people are bad at spotting liars.

Here’s the very telling conclusion:  That guy at the head of the table running your meeting, leaning back in his chair, arms behind his head, is going to take risks.  He won’t feel as bad about lying to you, and you’re going to have a real hard time telling when he is.

There are a lot of reasons for lying and some of them are quite valid.  One, for example, is to protect the organization from strategic matters.  Another might be that the boss is not ready for information to be made public.  But remember this:  It’s rare for a boss to say that he/she is not able to make information available at this time.  Or that the information will be made public on such and such a date.  Sometimes the information is above your level.

Here’s one way to deal with the issue, if the info is especially important to you.  Pay close attention to what the boss is saying, but check out any sources you may have prior to asking your question, as well as after hearing the response.  But remember, sometimes it’s just not wise, for political or personal credibility reasons, to check out sources.  That means that you’ll just have to patiently sit on your hands and keep your mouth closed.

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