What’s With All These Big-Time Liars?

Why do people lie and then keep lying?

Posted May 19, 2010

Is there ever a time when big-time liars and hypocrites aren't in the news? Even with the usual stiff competition, this week stands out from the rest. There's the guy who lied his way into Harvard and didn't get busted for two years; the Baptist minister George Rekers, hell-bent on "curing" homosexuality and getting paid for it, caught vacationing with a young hottie from Rentboy.com and claiming that he only hired the guy to carry his baggage; and the Connecticut attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who conveyed the impression that he had served in Vietnam when he had gotten no closer than Parris Island, South Carolina.

The New York Times invited me to participate in a "Room for Debate" panel about Blumenthal. You can read all of the contributions here. Although this is off-topic to Living Single, I thought some readers might be interested in an earlier version of my essay, in which I also discussed journalists who have gotten in trouble for making up their stories. Here it is:

Everyone lies. That's just human. What is less commonplace is to tell a series of interrelated and consequential lies and get away with them - at least for a while. Remember Clifford Irving, who landed a huge advance to write an "authorized" biography of Howard Hughes? Irving never met Hughes, and knew he never would. When the gig was up, he explained how he felt: "I almost wanted to cry out: ‘Sure, I did it. And I'm glad I did it. You want me to grovel? I can't. You want me to feel guilty? I don't. Because I enjoyed every goddamn minute of it.'" [Quote is from the back cover of the paperback edition of The Hoax.]

You don't need to be among the remorseless people who delight in their own deceptive conquests to get entangled in a web of your own lies. It happens to morally ordinary people, too.

The trip down liars lane can begin unremarkably. Maybe there's something you yearn for. As a journalist, it might be that perfect quote that nails a story. Or maybe, as a public figure, it is a life experience that would endear you to your voters. Only you don't have the quote or the experience. So you lie.

When there is just one lie out there, that's when it is most possible for you to take it back. But it is also when you are least likely to do so. You've gotten away with it. The situation seems controllable.

Now, though, you've upped the ante. Now your editor expects you to come up with a story that's just as scintillating as the one before. Now the people in your crowds start to think of you as a hero. Do you really want to go back to you true, mundane self?

Plus, that first time, perhaps you fretted about whether the lie was worth the risk. Or, if you got caught up in the moment and just blurted it out, maybe you obsessed about whether to correct the record. It worked, though, didn't it? Maybe the second time you fretted less.

A solo lie can be a solo act, but to unfurl a whole string of successful deceits, you are going to need a supporting cast. Effective liars often start recruiting people even before they've told the first untruth. It would be comforting to think that liars have horns. Instead, many have great social skills. They make friends and help other people. Sometimes they impress people in power, who then invest in them and mentor them.

Woe to the first person who dares to express doubt about the liar's honor or veracity! The cast of characters who are fond of the liar, or feel indebted or invested in the liar, will rush forward with their outrage and incredulousness. Ironically, their public show of support only makes it harder for the liar to come clean. Now a confession would hurt and humiliate the very people who stood up for the liar.

In the case of Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, one of his friends, former Connecticut Representative Christopher Shays, told the Times that he was becoming uneasy with Mr. Blumenthal's depictions of his military experience. Over time, little by little, Mr. Blumenthal seemed to be embellishing his stories and overstating his service. Mr. Shays said that he thought about cautioning his friend: "And I wish I had."

Mr. Shays got closer than most. In our research, my colleagues and I have found that the people who like us and care about us are typically the most reluctant to tell us a painful truth. It is not just that they don't want to hurt us. They want to believe. They still do believe, long after the less emotionally invested have moved on.

Janet Cooke, the journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for the story she had fabricated, had also lied on the resume she submitted when she sought the job at the Washington Post. In his memoir, A Good Life, editor Ben Bradlee asked and answered the obvious question: "How come we never checked? Simply put, Janet Cooke was too good to be true, and we wanted her too bad."

[To read some of the stories of people's biggest lies, take a look at Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives, in paperback here and on Amazon, and on Kindle. A collection of some of my professional papers on deception, The Lies We Tell and the Clues We Miss: Professional Papers, is also available in paperback here or from Amazon.]