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Leaders and Liars

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SHOW 301: Leaders and Liars

Do good leaders also make good liars? As psychologist Carrie Keating investigates this question, she discovers revealing differences between males and females, and children and adults. Keating's experiments in human behavior seem to demonstrate a correlation between persuasive abilities and dominant behavior. If it is true that people who are good leaders are also effective deceivers, then Keating's studies have important implications for all of us.

Curriculum Links
Activity: What is Leadership?
Science at Home
For Further Thought
Notes & Discussion
Report From the Field: Carrie Keating, Psychologist at Colgate University



behavior, language,
group dynamics


As you've seen on SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS, dominant behavior -- or the ability to lead -- may be correlated with the ability to deceive others. When we think about leadership, we often have an image of a dynamic or powerful leader -- perhaps someone in political power, a coach of a successful sports team or a popular leader in a social group. But to understand more about how effective leadership works, we need to look beyond the leader to the interaction of the group. Psychologists who study group dynamics consider leaders and followers to be important to the process of leadership.


Imagine you are a volunteer with The Action Team, a new group of young people dedicated to solving environmental and social problems in your town. Fill in the chart below with your ideas about the role of the leader (example: sets goals), the role of the followers (example: communicates needs) and the personality traits that best distinguish the leader and followers. Use the knowledge you've gained by leading others or observing leaders in your school, community or peer groups as you complete this activity.

 Your Ideas For...  LEADER  FOLLOWER





Good Personality Traits:


After you have filled in the chart, be ready to share your ideas with your classmates and work together to answer the question, What is leadership? Collaborate to determine your class's definition of leadership.


  • The object of this activity is to help students understand leadership as a process of influence between leader and followers. Have students complete the activity individually or in small groups. Then, lead a class discussion in which students try to come up with a consensus about the definition of leadership. To conclude the activity, you may want to discuss how the class definition of leadership applies to political candidates or other highly visible leaders.

  • What distinguishes leaders from followers?

  • How do effective leaders accomplish their goals?

  • How do leaders use manipulative techniques -- verbal and nonverbal -- to persuade others?

  • In what ways might you be dishonest during the course of a day?

  • Could we live in a society that was 100 percent truthful?

  • Do you observe any differences between male and female leadership habits?

  • An election year offers an ideal opportunity to study leadership. As students listen to televised speeches by political candidates, ask them to observe: leadership traits and persuasive abilities, audience reactions and response, non-verbal communication -- suggest they turn off the sound to help focus on body language.

  • This story raises some thought-provoking issues about the nature of leadership, the role of nonverbal communication, the ability to deceive, group dynamics, dominant and manipulative behavior, gender differences and more. Before viewing, you may want to introduce a discussion on leadership. How would students define leadership ability? Ask the same question after the class has watched the show and completed the student activity; compare the responses.

  • Deception is another topic to explore. What behavioral clues indicate that a person is lying? Can people learn to separate truth from fiction? Ask students to comment on the design of Keating's experiment; do they have suggestions for improving or changing the study? What applications might these studies have to politics? advertising? business?

  • If possible, assign groups of students to observe young children interacting. What behavior appears to indicate that a child is dominant in a group? Students might also observe leaders and followers in the classroom or other public situations.

  • Another interesting aspect of Keating's research focuses on gender differences. How might the process of socialization of men and women in our culture tend to support Keating's findings? Do students observe differences in leadership style and group dynamics between all-male, all-female and mixed groups?

  • Compare the personality traits of various leaders in history, both those considered "good" and "evil." For example, how did FDR, Stalin, Churchill and Hitler differ? How did each leader manage to persuade others? What qualities might a cult leader like Jim Jones and a political leader like Churchill have in common? If leadership is an interactive process, what dynamics are at work in a cult? In a military operation? In a political campaign? What responsibility do people have to question those in power?

  • After viewing this show in class, you may want to point out that the taste-test is a classic experimental procedure. As a follow-up to the study, Keating and her colleagues talked with each child who participated in the taste-test.


What's involved in setting up an experiment in human behavior? Dr. Carrie Keating, whose work in deception and dominance is featured on FRONTIERS, explains that psychologists don't just come up with an idea and conduct an experiment. Whenever any kind of experiment involving people is proposed, it is subject to a lengthy and detailed approval process.

"With any study of human behavior, you have to hope that what you're asking is so important that it justifies the experiment," says Keating. In the experiments with young children seen on this episode, the first step was to prepare a list of specific goals and procedures for approval by a university review committee. Then Keating contacted daycare centers, parents and the children who would participate in the study for approval. Finally, Keating and her colleagues spent several weeks meeting with the children in the classroom, getting to know them better.

Keating's research began with her interest in the way people use nonverbal communication to hide their true feelings. She noticed that some people are very good at practicing deception. She began to wonder if those who excel in masquerading the truth are also the more dominant personalities.

"Deception is a part of communication," Keating observes. "We mask a lot of our true feelings in order to survive in society." She theorizes that the "socializing process means that we have to lie to get along" and that "we lie much of the time" -- beginning with such dishonest exchanges as "How are you?" "Fine."

Keating's interest has extended to studying dominant behavior in groups. She plans to continue research into gender differences, and invites any prospective psychology students at Colgate to volunteer for experiments! "If I had one wish," she says, "it would be that students would remember that psychology is a behavioral science. Science is not a subject, but an approach. You can be as scientific about a pile of rocks as you can be about people."


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.