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Powerful Lies

Most people become stressed when lying, but new research shows that people with power feel just fine when lying — and are better at getting away with it.

Lying is costly, extracting physiological and cognitive tolls from most people. The body of research on lying consistently shows that people become stressed when they do not tell the truth. The speed with which they process information slows down, possibly because lying requires keeping track of the lie and the truth while simultaneously trying to suppress nervous habits or other signs that might give the liar away. (So-called lie-detector tests, or polygraphs, can’t actually determine if people are lying, but they can identify signs of physiological stress that are consistent with lying.)

Professor Dana R. Carney, who studies social judgment and decision making, noticed that in a different area of scientific study, psychologists have observed that power — defined as control over others’ social or monetary outcomes and always accompanied by feelings of power — enhances cognitive functions and makes people feel good. The effects of feeling powerful are precisely the inverse of those that most people experience when they lie.

The overlap is remarkable. When you feel powerful, you feel good, you’re a little smarter in that you process information more quickly and are better at multitasking, and some evidence suggests you may be more physiologically resilient,” Carney says. When you lie, you feel bad, your cognitive systems are overworked, and you are physiologically taxed. What if you put lying and power together? It’s a match made in heaven or a match made in hell.

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