When Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs and blood doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey back in January much of the public responded with shock and outrage. After all, he cheated and he lied about it. What could be worse? People felt their contempt was not only appropriate but 100% justified—Armstrong’s actions were morally reprehensible in every way and, to add fuel to the fire, his public apology felt less than satisfying for many of us. (See my previous post: I’m Sorry: 3 Components of an Effective Apology.)
Who Cheats and Who Lies?
The truth about cheating and lying is that it’s not just the Lance Armstrongs of the sports world, corrupt Wall Street executives, or those labeled pathological who are doing it. At least nearly all of us do at one point or another in our lives and we do it far more regularly than we care to admit. Consider these alarming statistics on cheating alone: 30-40% of Americans cheat on their taxes; 30-60% of married individuals in the United States will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage; and 73% of all test takers, including prospective graduate students and teachers agree that most students cheat at some point.
And as for lying? “Humans are exceptional liars, truth stretchers, story weavers, myth makers and data ignorers,” says organizational consultant and facilitator Julie Diamond, Ph.D. Diamond talks about the ways all of us spin the truth, exaggerate claims, and just plain lie all the time in our everyday lives. “When we read about…Lance, we think it’s something we wouldn’t do. And here’s what’s scariest: it’s not just something we could do but something we’ve probably already done, in our own way, in our own worlds. And we don’t even remember doing it.” In short, cheaters and liars live a lot closer to home than many of us care to notice.
Co-creating Dishonesty: Cultural and Systemic Causes of Dishonesty
Going further, it is critical to consider our culture’s role in individual lying and cheating. Much of popular psychology holds individuals wholly responsible for themselves, including for their cheating and lying. From a larger perspective, however, individuals and social systems co-create problems and the problems with one reflect problems with the other. While understanding this does not change individuals’ responsibility, culpability, or need for help, it does expand our understanding of cheating and lying, making it more difficult for those who identify with social systems to throw stones without considering their own role in creating the cheating and lying of individuals.
For example, consider how mainstream culture exerts pressure on individual performance. Lisa King from the Appalachian Chronicles writes, “In 30 years, there has been a twenty-fold increase in the consumption of attention-deficit disorder medications. Four million children and teens in America are currently taking Ritalin.” Ritalin clearly has other functions, but one function is to enhance students’ performance. Our educational focus has become so heavily weighted on good grades, rather than good education, that even students who say cheating is wrong, still admit to cheating in order to get a good grade. Research about cheating among middle school children (ages 12-14) has shown that there is increased motivation to cheat because there is more emphasis on grades. According to one recent survey of middle schoolers, 2/3 of respondents reported cheating on exams, while 9/10 reported copying another's homework.
Further, in 2009 CBS News reported that more than 50 percent of Americans drink coffee everyday—three to four cups each, more than 330 million cups a day and counting. "We really want something that'll help us work harder, sharpen our minds, increase our sense of well-being, improve our performance," says Bennett Weinberg, author of The Caffeine Advantage. In this case, it is coffee that enhances our performance. Another alarming example: a 2006 University of Minnesota study found that 1 in 5 young women are using diet pills. In effect these diet drugs enhance our performance at achieving weight loss. Even in the bedroom, performance enhancement has become an epidemic. Annual sales to men for virility drugs like Viagra topped $5 billion in 2011.
So, my friends in the psychological community, before we get our backs up in judgment and horror, let’s keep at least one eye on ourselves and the other on a mainstream culture that too readily scape-goats individuals rather than takes a peak at its own shadow.
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I am the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Signed copies of the book are for sale on my website: www.talkingbacktodrphil.com.
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