January 19, 2013

The lies we tell

Experts say Lance Armstrong may not be as different from the rest of us as we'd like to believe.

By HELEN O'NEILL The Associated Press

Lance Armstrong may have been branded liar and cheat of the month, but experts say he's not as different from the rest of us as we'd like to believe.

Lance Armstrong
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A video screen at a hotel restaurant in Grapevine, Texas, on Friday shows a replay telecast of a segment of Lance Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.

The Associated Press

ARMSTRONG STILL 'DIDN'T NAME NAMES'

For anti-doping officials, Lance Armstrong's admission of cheating was only a start. Now they want him to give details.

Armstrong's much-awaited confession to Oprah Winfrey made for riveting television, but if the disgraced cyclist wants to take things further, it will involve several long days in meetings with anti-doping officials who have specific questions: Who ran the doping programs, how were they run and who looked the other way.

"He didn't name names," World Anti-Doping Agency President John Fahey said in Australia. "He didn't say who supplied him, what officials were involved."

In the 90-minute interview Thursday night with Winfrey -- the first of two parts broadcast on her OWN network -- Armstrong said he started doping in the mid-1990s, using the blood booster EPO, testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone, as well as engaging in outlawed blood doping and transfusions. The doping regimen, he said, helped him in all seven of his Tour de France wins.

His openness about his own transgressions, however, did not extend to allegations about other people. "I don't want to accuse anybody," he said.

But he might have to name names if he wants to gain anything from his confession, at least from anti-doping authorities.

Armstrong has been stripped of all his Tour de France titles and banned for life. A reduction of the ban, perhaps to eight years, could allow him to compete in triathlons in 2020, when he's 49.

Almost to a person, those in cycling and anti-doping circles believe it will take nothing short of Armstrong turning over everything he knows to stand any chance of cutting a deal to reduce his ban.

Lying, they say, is part of the human condition, something most people do every day. And that's reflected in the cavalcade of celebrities cowed into confession after their deceptions were exposed -- from Richard Nixon's denial of his role in the Watergate cover-up to Bill Clinton's denial of an affair with an intern, from drug-abusing baseball players to fraudulent Wall Street executives.

"The world is rife with great liars," says Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts who studies lying and deception. "Nothing about the Lance Armstrong case is shocking. We all lie every day. We live in a culture where lying is quite acceptable."

The husband who says he is working late when he is having an affair. The worker who takes long-term disability for a serious injury, only to be found puttering around the golf course. The guy who says his car broke down because he is late for work. The dog who ate your homework.

"People lie to protect their self-image," Feldman says. "Once they've told a lie, they are in it, they live in it, and they justify hurting others to protect the lie because they don't see any way out."

People who live a deception at the level of Lance Armstrong have what Feldman calls the "liar's advantage" because they are telling us what we want to believe.

"We want to believe Lance Armstrong was a great superhero who overcame cancer and went on to win Tour de France after Tour de France," Feldman says. "We always want to believe in the great comeback story."

Armstrong, he says, was unusually energetic in trying to silence the opposition and damage his critics -- a trait that might be viewed as less forgivable than his lying.

"Lying is extraordinarily common and we couldn't get along without it," says David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England in Maine, and author of the book "Why We Lie."

Lying, Smith says, "is as automatic and unconscious as sweating." He points out that parents teach children at an early age that "it's OK to lie, just not to me." Kids are told to pretend to be grateful for a Christmas gift they don't want. And they witness their parents lying -- about the tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

Wise people throughout history have understood that lying and deception is part of life, Smith says: "There is no commandment that says 'thou shalt not lie,' " although there is a commandment against bearing false witness.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, has spent years studying why people cheat. He is the author of a book, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves."

People basically try to do two things at the same time, Ariely says. "On one hand, we want to be able to look in the mirror and feel good about ourselves. So we don't want to cheat. On the other hand, we can cheat a little bit, and still feel good about ourselves."

He doesn't judge Lance Armstrong as being any different from the rest of us. He cheated in a bigger way because the stakes were higher, and the system allowed him to do so. All cheaters, whether big or small, have a huge ability to rationalize their actions as they manipulate the system, Ariely says. "They say, 'Everyone else was doing it' or 'It was for a good cause.' "

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.

"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 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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