A Moment of Science

Born Leaders, Born Liars

Americans have a long and august history of political representation, and just as long a history of mud-slinging. Learn more on this Moment of Science.

Thomas Jefferson And Other Presidents On List

Photo: Liutao (flickr)

Thomas Jefferson was accused in his day of being a liar and a cheat, accusations that sound right at home in the twentieth century.

Americans have a long and august history of political representation, and just as long a history of mud-slinging.

Even the revered Thomas Jefferson was accused in his day of being a liar and a cheat, accusations that sound right at home in the twentieth century. Are people just hopelessly cynical? Why is it that, to many, “politician” and “liar” go hand in hand?

New studies suggest that there may, in fact, be a reason. At Colgate University, child psychologists watched a group of children playing with each other on a playground, in order to determine which children emerged most often as the “leaders.” They defined the leaders as those who most often initiated and led group activity rather than just following along.

Next the researchers ran a test in which they had the whole group deliberately lie to each other, saying that a particular drink was sweet, even when it wasn’t. Guess who emerged as the most effective deceivers of other children? You got it, the same group who made the most effective leaders.

Is there a one-to-one correlation between “Yum yum — try this sweet drink” in kids and “Vote for me and I’ll fix the nation” in adults? That’s a bit of a stretch, but the data does hint at a connection, especially since the experiment was reproduced in college students. Other interpretations are possible, of course, such as that people will do what leaders tell them even if they aren’t fooled by what they say, an equally chilling possibility.

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