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Power and Lies


Explanations > Power > Power and Lies

Asymmetrical relationships | Powerful lying | Powerless lying | So what?


Power has a significant effect on lying and deceit and it can take significant moral determination to avoid this.

Asymmetrical relationships

Many relationships are asymmetrical in terms of power. In other words, one person has more power than the other. Parents, for example have significantly more physical and financial power than their children. Managers have the power to direct their subordinates and sack them if they do not comply.

The effect of asymmetry is that parties who seem to have less power usually turn to other forms of persuasion and influence. Children, for example will cry and disobey. Adults may spread gossip and put in the minimum effort. Asymmetry in war likewise leads to very different strategies.

Both sides use lying and other deceptive action, but in different ways. The critical differentiator is what punishment may exacted if the lies are discovered.

Powerful lying

People who have more obvious power, such as parents and managers, often do not see serious consequences to lying. They are not going to sent to bed or be sacked. They can also dish out their own reprisals if weaker people try to punish the lies of the powerful.

In consequence, the obviously powerful will tend to lie with relatively little consideration or worry. They may well see their objectives as more important than those of the other people and hence will tend to think lies are necessary and justified.

One way that powerful people lie is in acquisition of more power. They can claim credit when it is not theirs, secure in the knowledge that others dare not contradict them. Likewise they can excuse their failures, blaming problems on weaker people.

As well as being more able to lie, powerful people are more likely to trust others, as they are more able to recover from deception and also to punish the wrong-doer.

Powerless lying

So what can powerless people do? Should they be truthful? A significant problem for them is where telling truths that are uncomfortable for powerful people leads to punishment. This places them in the double bind of risking punishment whether they tell the truth or whether they lie.

A common pattern is that powerless people lie to avoid punishment for telling the truth more often than they tell the truth and risk punishment for this. It is a simple equation: certain punishment for failing to live up to demanded standards or possible punishment if lies are discovered. The typical result is that they become practiced at credible lying.

With this practice, the powerless people gain power. They become good at telling lies that are difficult to detect. This is the dilemma for parents and managers whose disciplinary approach to requiring honesty only chases it away.

So what?

If you are a person in power, such as a parent or manager, avoid punishing people for telling the truth, as this will just turn them into great liars. Also consider the morality of your using lies just because you can get away with it.

See also

Symmetry in War, Power Corrupts, Why we lie


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