It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

Losing Lance

How admirers deal with the unveiling of Lance Armstrong's duplicity

I actually started this column last October.  I was in Austin for an academic conference, the original reports outlining the allegations against Armstrong had just come out, and I was carrying around my Livestrong backpack with some trepidation.  I wanted to talk about how people would respond to these latest allegations, the latest evidence, that American Hero, Lance Armstrong, was a fraud.  At that time, because he continued to deny any wrongdoing, there was amibiguity that his faithful could follow.  Now, that he's gone to Oprah, however, the cognitive gymnastics are more limited.

To begin with, Lance has faced accusations of doping for more than a decade.  It had become as common to hear him accused as it was to hear him deny it.  Certainly, while he was the primary target of French journalists, and no other cyclist seemed to fall under such scrutiny, it was easy to assume that he was the victim of a personal vendetta.  It was easy to believe that he was just like everybody else - easy to assume that though his performance was outstanding, he fell within the norms of the sport and was clean.  It was almost the opposite of the base-rate fallacy, in which people overestimate the occurence of rare events.  In this case, people underestimated the prevalence of doping, assumed that the normative or typical behavior in the sport was to race clean, and were able to put Lance into that category of generally clean bike racers.  This process of assimilation occurs when we hold prior beliefs about the similarity between two objects.

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Over the years, however, our understanding of the norms of the sport changed.  As one cyclist after another confessed to doping, the normative or typical behavior changed.  Rather than believing that the average cyclist was clean, we came to believe that many, if not most, of the elite were involved in the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs and techniques.  If we were to remain loyal to Lance, we had to change our cognitive strategy.  Rather than seeing Lance as just like all the other cyclists, Lance became something unique and superhuman.  His work with Livestrong and his media personal portrayed him as extra tough, working extra hard, and extra virtuous.  Our perceptions of him were colored by what psychologists call the "halo effect".  Because he was virtuous in his work to fight cancer, this virtuousness was applied to other aspects of his life, such as his athletic career.  As much as his tough personal helped Livestrong create an image of persistence and resilience, Livestrong helped create an image of virute for Lance.  Because Lance was a cancer-survivor and philanthropist, we could see him as different from the rest of the pack of racers.  In this case, our prior beliefs about the similarity between two objects led to mental contrasting of the two.

More recently, more concrete accusations came out.  Former teammates began to speak out against Lance.  But, again, we were able to employ our cognitive agility to wiggle away from the inevitable realization.  In this case, two processes came into play.  The first was Heider's balance theory.  This theory essentially describes how "then enemy of my enemy is my friend".  In this case, because people liked Lance, and Floyd Landis or Frankie Andreu were harming Lance, we decided not to like them.  We ate up stories about the faults of these accusers, reveling in their admissions of guilt.  This allowed us to remain positively inclined towards Lance.  This positive inclination was strengthened by the degree to which people had publically declared their liking or support of Lance.  Nike sold millions of yellow bracelets for Livestrong.  They were seen on the wrists of stars and politicians, and our neighbors.  Talismans giving us a small piece of Lance Armstrong's grit and strength, and declaring support for him and for Livestrong.  People joined Livestrong fundraising teams and were buoyed by videos and commercials, with Lance telling them that he had survived and succeeded by suffering and asking them to race hard and suffer for the cause.  These public declarations of support, in the face of the accusations, created a kind of cognitive dissonance.  Our behavior demonstrated a liking for Lance that contradicted what media reports suggested we should feel.  Given this kind of conflict, psychologists show that people can change their beliefs, or change their behaviors, in order to reach harmony.  Changing behaviors, particularly when past behaviors leave behind artifacts like bracelets and photographs, is hard.  So, at first we pushed hard against the media descriptions and held fast to our admiration of Lance.  Even so late as October, journalists declared on the cover of Newsweek that "I belief Lance".  We pushed away the doubts as long as we could, because we wanted to keep that admiration.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.  Now Lance has confessed, or so we've heard, our admiration for his accomplishments with Livestrong are uncontrovertedly contradicted by his fraudulent behavior as a cyclist.  The dissonance cannot be denied.  But, the mind is ever agile.  To create balance, some will seek to find flaws in Livestrong.  Already evidence is being gathered of impropriety in the charity.  Others will seek to minimize Lance's actions - by returning to claim that he was just like any other athlete in a sport where cheating was the norm.  The cycle of halos, dissonance, and changing perceptions of norms will continue until finally, we can rest.

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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