Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Don't Stop Believin'

Living the lying life.

Yesterday was a rough one for serial liars.

First, the story out of Boston that a 23-year-old named Adam Wheeler has been charged with larceny and identity fraud after years of forging transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other academic paperwork. As a result of the alleged scheme, Wheeler not only managed to gain acceptance to Harvard, but had also earned more than $45,000 in awards and scholarships. In fact, the main reason he was caught, apparently, was that he wasn't content to just take his degree and march off into the sunset. No, instead Wheeler shot for the stars, applying for the Rhodes and Fulbright Scholarships, and was ultimately done in by the increased scrutiny these applications brought upon him.

Next, the even bigger Richard Blumenthal story took center stage. Blumenthal, the attorney general of Connecticut and current candidate for U.S. Senate, served Stateside in the Marine Reserve during the Vietnam War. Only problem is that–as detailed in yesterday's NY Times–Blumenthal has regularly peppered his recent speeches with phrases like "when I served in Vietnam" and "when we returned from Vietnam."

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Of course, the two stories are far from identical. Harvard's Talented Mr. Wheeler allegedly forged documents, plagiarized essays, and engaged in a litany of unambiguous deceptions over a period of several years. Blumenthal, on the other hand, is just accused of resume embellishment, albeit with disturbing implications given his status as a public servant and the nobility of the group in which he misleadingly claimed membership.

But cases like these raise a variety of interesting questions, not the least of which is couldn't the Harvard guy have devoted just a fraction of that creativity and industriousness to doing some of his actual work and maybe earning a scholarship-worthy GPA? I mean, this doesn't seem to be a lazy person–after all, he's forging transcript forms, applying for scholarships, tracking down official letterhead from institutions of higher learning up and down the Eastern Seaboard... It's quite the impressively busy schedule of extralegal extracurriculars. He seems to be nothing if not ambitious.

self-deceptionMore psychologically speaking, one can't help but wonder how such repeated deceptions or mischaracterizations influence one's private perception of reality. As I've blogged about before, self-delusion plays a recurring role in daily functioning even when we aren't trying to lie to others. Under normal circumstances, we rationalize away our missteps, think we're better than others, and exaggerate personal control over life events. In the midst of long-standing cons or half-truths told to others, do these processes go into hyperdrive?

Take Blumenthal's situation. Even today, it's not as if he's exactly apologizing for misrepresenting his record (and failing to correct the misstatements of others on his behalf). Rather, he's sticking to the claim that he "misspoke" a few times here and there, deflecting blame for the uproar onto "a few misplaced words."

Yes, damn you, words!  Always causing problems for those of us who use you.

Is Blumenthal's non-apology apology just political spin? Simple PR damage control? Sure. But probably a bit of self-deception thrown in as well.

Because it seems that Blumenthal's story about his military service evolved over time. At first, reports suggest, he humbly played down his role as one focused on domestic desk work. More recently, the embellishments emerged and then snowballed. So I can't help but wonder, today is he really convinced that all he did was misstate a preposition here or there? For that matter, in front of some audiences, did he manage to convince himself that he really had served in Vietnam, even as he depicted his service more accurately in other settings?

It's hard to imagine how the serial liar or habitual mischaracterizer lives without a heavy dose of self-delusion. The alternative seems almost too painful to consider–almost like surgery without anesthesia. Unless you're a sociopath, wouldn't you have to convince yourself that your actions aren't that bad because you really deserve this scholarship more than the other students? Don't you have to slowly come to believe parts of the falsehoods you continually convey in order to get through each day with some semblance of peace of mind?

EdwardsWithout self-delusion, how else to account for the political candidate who thinks he'll be able to pull off a viable presidential run without anyone finding out about the baby he just fathered with a mistress? Or the journalist who thinks no one will catch on if he continues to fabricate sources when writing for a high-profile publication ? Or the author who thinks she can plagiarize much of the novel she submits to a major book publisher without anyone figuring out the ruse?

Wait, there's more... like last week, another college-aged young person who can't face telling her parents that she dropped out of school. So instead she keeps hanging around campus for years, meeting with professors, and–as her supposed graduation date approaches–stages a kidnapping hoax rather than come clean. And on and on...

It's the audacity of these gambits that's so fascinating. In most cases, these probably weren't grand schemes carefully orchestrated from the outset. Rather, they're whitish lies that slowly balloon out of control, with rationalization and other means of self-deception greasing the skids at each step along the way.

Then again, what do I know? OK, I admit it: I don't actually have a Ph.D. in Psychology.  But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and as far as I'm concerned, that's close enough. 

Don't stop believin', baby.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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