January 18, 2013

Experts on deception say everyone lies

Helen O'Neill / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

In Armstrong's case, Ariely says, the fact that he had survived cancer and won the Tour de France multiple times and become an international role model gave him a huge incentive to justify his cheating and perhaps even believe that it actually helped him in his good works.

Most people start off lying or cheating in a small way, Ariely says, and feel nervous about their deception at first, a feeling that dissipates the more they continue.

Ariely tells of another world-class cyclist he interviewed who started using performance enhancing drugs not because he wanted to win, but because he simply wanted to catch up. He felt it was justified because everyone else was doing it. He wound up enmeshed in a spiral of lies and drug use, and eventually a drug selling scandal that led to his downfall.

"He was a classic case of, 'I will just do it once," Ariely says. "But then it became the slippery slope where the lies got bigger and the cheating more common and in the end he got caught."

"Ordinary people can become extraordinary liars," says Bella DePaulo, visiting professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, who studies deception.

In the 1990s, DePaulo and her colleagues monitored more than 100 people between the ages of 18 and 71 who kept a diary of all the lies they told over the course of a week. Most people, she found, lie once or twice a day, "everything from the little compliment to spare another person's feelings to a self-serving statement that exaggerates their own importance, to trying to get a raise or a better deal on a car."

But serious and long-term deception, DePaulo says, requires more planning - and help. She cites the case of journalist Stephen Glass, who fabricated articles for The New Republic in the 1990s, making up characters and quotes and even events. Like other great liars who managed to continue their deception for years, DePaulo says, Glass had enablers - people who wanted to believe he was as talented as he pretended to be.

Liars can only sustain those kinds of deceptions, DePaulo says, if they get others to invest – wittingly or unwittingly – in their lie.

"Your lies are going to have longer legs when people invest in you and look up to you and don't want to hear that you may have been a lying, cheating, scum all along."

Armstrong, she says, had something else – the power to make life miserable for those who threatened to reveal him.

Although Armstrong's ruthlessness makes his cheating seem more extreme, he can't simply be dismissed as one bad apple, Ariely says. And whether the cyclist will eventually find some kind of redemption is irrelevant.

Ariely believes the only good that can come out of the case is if society uses it to examine standards in everything from sports to business, to create new systems where cheating becomes completely unacceptable and a mea culpa to Oprah is not considered the road to forgiveness.

But he doesn't hold out much hope. "Look at the bankers," he says. "They all said sorry and nothing changed."

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