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COMMITMENTS : THE STRANGEST SPECIES : Follow Them --but Don't Trust Them

May 15, 1995|KATHY KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Pete Wilson said he was considering running for President, possibly contradicting his pledge to serve out his term as governor, state Democratic chairman Bill Press dubbed him the "Pinocchio of Politics."

Many voters have long suspected that politics is full of Pinocchios. Recent research on deception and dominance may help explain why.

Caroline F. Keating, a professor of psychology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., has found a correlation between natural leadership and a talent for effective lying--at least in men and children. Women tested differently.

Keating studied the link between dominance and deception in three groups: adult men, adult women and children 4 to 6.

"We hypothesized that good leaders would be good deceptors, and that is what we found," says Keating, who has been studying lying and leadership for 12 years. Her research focuses solely on nonverbal behavior, such as facial expressions, gestures and posture during the act of lying.

To find the best beguilers, Keating gave some participants a drink from hell: Kool-Aid "sweetened" with baking soda. Others were given Kool-Aid properly sweetened. Those who drank the offensive concoction tried to convince interviewers that they found the drink tasty.

Objective judges analyzed the videotaped interviews, sorting liars from truth-tellers by reading body language. Really good adult fibbers had poker faces, motionless bodies and gazed directly into the eyes of their interviewer.

Children who were ranked as the most successful deceivers masked their duplicity with a smile and kept their bodies still. (Smiling while telling a lie is convincing if a child is younger than 7; after that, a smile is associated with lying, Keating says.)

To identify the leaders, groups of six adults had to plot how to survive a plane crash. The men who emerged as leaders were also the most convincing liars. But women who emerged as leaders ranged from really bad liars to mediocre liars.

Girls and boys who were dominant in groups of 16 to 23 children also proved to be the most adept liars ("Short politicians," Keating says). These children had advanced verbal skills and did a lot of finger-pointing and other gesturing to get what they wanted. Children who did not exhibit leadership qualities were at the bottom of the play group pecking order and were horrible liars.

Among the men and the children, leaders shared a propensity to manipulate peers with nonverbal gestures and to control their facial and body movement. Keating says we have a fundamental belief that liars smile, fidget and avert their gaze while they deceive. Guess again.

"Many of the best liars gazed most directly at those they were trying to deceive even more than when they were telling the truth," she says.

"Leading and acting are compatible and overlap. Leaders have good deception skills. It doesn't mean they are pathological liars, but that if they chose to lie, it would be very hard to spot."

Sometimes a leader needs to be deceptive. While we do not want to see weaknesses in our leaders, she says, we want them to do what is in our best interest.

But she says researchers have long questioned whether politicians are aware of their own deceptions. There are also questions about the curious finding that leaders among women are not the top deceivers, a result Keating believes has to do with women valuing emotional honesty and expressiveness over the appearance of being in control.

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