Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Some Lessons Learned from Lance Armstrong and Others who Lie

Human behavior is always fascinating and complex when it comes to deception.

The Lance Armstrong confessional interview with Oprah and the Manti Te’o “girlfriend” hoax discussed in the press this week both well underscore the many risks associated with lying in particular and deception in general. We probably all grew up with the notion that we should always tell the truth. This is a fundamental and universal moral, ethical, religious, and cultural value. Yet, as we get older we quickly learn that this rule often needs to be nuanced and that some kind of lying or deception might be okay after all. We may lie for a greater good to nurture positive relationships with others. For example, we might tell a young child that we enjoyed their long and boring musical recital or tell our spouse that they didn’t gain weight on the vacation or like their new outfit when we actually think otherwise. We might politely say how much we like our family members and co-workers (when we don't) or the lousy meal offered to us by our friends and neighbors. We might fuss over the children of our friends (who act like brats) and say how delightful they are when we can't wait to get away from them. There are many ways that we might deceive others for the common good or for a greater purpose such as keeping people happy without any harm caused to anyone.

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However, when lying crosses an often very difficult to pinpoint line we get angry…and perhaps in these recent cases many get very angry. If Lance Armstrong lied consistently over many years and attacked and destroyed others who called him to task regarding his lies then his behavior in unforgiveable in the eyes of so many people. If Manti Te’o lied to save face and shame from being victimized in a hoax that made him look naive and foolish then he is more easily forgiven by others. But if he lied to create a story that would help him get more attention, resources, or other benefits then he is much harder to forgive. 

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n general, although we often start off with an absolute moral rule that lying is always wrong, we typically alter this view when deception occurs for a greater good, to improve the lives of others, or does no harm to anyone. As is often said, “no harm, no foul.” Besides, sometimes we like a good story too. But when lying is done repeatedly perhaps driven by narcissistic, antisocial, and selfish reasons with others being victimized in the process and with little if any sincere remorse then we typically just can’t forgive the transgression.

From a practical point of view, it is often amazing that so many people who are very much in the public eye feel that they can get away with lying and deception. There are so many examples of this in sports, politics, Hollywood, CEOs and so forth. In this time of social media, 24/7 news cycles, and cameras absolutely everywhere there are no secrets anymore. Everything is public. There really are no secrets! So, regardless of the moral, ethical, and religious reasons to be truthful there are many practical reasons to be truthful too!

Human behavior (especially when it comes to deception) is always fascinating and complex. That’s why being a psychologist never gets boring!

So, what do you think?

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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