A Skill in Great Demand

Few of us would doubt that lying can be a useful skill.  Still it was surprising to see this month’s Harvard Business Review report on a study that offered some tips to executives on the subject.

The research by a professor at the Columbia Business School revealed that successful lying requires the confident assertion of power: “A sense of power buffers individuals from the stress of lying and increases their ability to deceive others.”  (See, “Defend Your Research:  Powerful People Are Better Liars.”)

There are distinct involuntary and physiological clues exhibited by people who are lying, telltale signs that can be spotted by those trained to detect them: “involuntary shoulder shrugs, accelerated speech, . . . cognitive impairment, and emotional distress.”  So those who can suppress these signs or cover them over with contrary signals have a real advantage.  On the other hand, the average person’s ability to know that he is being lied to is no better than chance.  “Powerful people like CEOs are better liars, and most people are bad at spotting liars.”  Clearly, it’s a big part of being successful.

But why has lying now become such an important subject of research?  Why in business schools?  Why reported in HBR?

One obvious answer to all three questions is that lying has become increasingly common.  We see obvious examples in Wall Street executives testifying before congress, evading tough questions about their responsibility for the recession and coming up with disingenuous arguments against regulation.  Similarly, energy companies have economized on safety, a fact exposed by the recent mine disaster in West Virginia and last week’s oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.  Tobacco companies suppressed information about lung cancer, etc. etc.  The naked self-interest of many corporations is becoming more and more difficult to conceal.

This may be part of the larger picture of the growing disparity between the rich and poor in our society.  Not only does that fact have to be covered over, those who are richer have, as a result, become more powerful and intimidating to those below.

But something else is happening in our culture: we are less interested in getting at the truth, more addicted to quick, simple answers and finding culprits, people to blame rather than people to set things right.  More of us may be educated now, but attention spans are shrinking.  Even those who know better, often no longer bother trying to be heard.

“Optics” is the new buzzword.  Appearance and spin influence public opinion more than facts.  Moreover, our political system is more and more hostage to the expensive arts of advertising and public relations.  Not everything said by executives and politicians are outright lies, necessarily, but the relationship between what they say and what is true is increasingly tenuous and irrelevant.

So appearing to believe what you say gets to be more and more important, and conviction becomes a skill to be studied and taught.  HBR, as usual, is just trying to be right where the action is.