Experts: Just like Lance, 'world rife with great liars'

2013-01-19T00:00:00Z Experts: Just like Lance, 'world rife with great liars'The Associated Press The Associated Press
January 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Lance Armstrong may have been branded liar and cheat of the month, but experts say he's not as different from the rest of us as we'd like to believe.

Lying, they say, is part of the human condition, something most people do every day. And that's reflected in the cavalcade of celebrities cowed into confession after their deceptions were exposed - from Richard Nixon's denial of the Watergate break-in to Bill Clinton's denial of an affair with an intern, from drug-abusing baseball players to fraudulent Wall Street executives.

"The world is rife with great liars," says Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts who studies lying and deception. "Nothing about the Lance Armstrong case is shocking. We all lie every day. We live in a culture where lying is quite acceptable."

The husband who says he is working late when he is having an affair. The worker who takes long-term disability for a serious injury, only to be found puttering around the golf course. The guy who says his car broke down because he is late for work. The dog who ate your homework.

"People lie to protect their self-image," Feldman says. "Once they've told a lie, they are in it, they live in it, and they justify hurting others to protect the lie because they don't see any way out."

People who live a deception at the level of Lance Armstrong have what Feldman calls the "liar's advantage" because they are telling us what we want to believe.

"We want to believe Lance Armstrong was a great superhero who overcame cancer and went on to win Tour de France after Tour de France," Feldman says. "We always want to believe in the great comeback story."

Armstrong, he says, was unusually energetic in trying to silence the opposition and damage his critics - a trait that, in the end, might be viewed as less forgivable than his lying.

"Lying is extraordinarily common, and we couldn't get along without it," says David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England in Maine and author of the book "Why We Lie." "It greases the wheels of society." Lying, Smith says, "is as automatic and unconscious as sweating."

He points out that parents teach children at an early age that "it's OK to lie, just not to me."

Kids are told to pretend to be grateful for a Christmas gift they don't want. And they witness their parents lying - about the tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, has spent years studying why people cheat. He is the author of a book, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves."

People basically try to do two things at the same time, Ariely says. "On one hand, we want to be able to look in the mirror and feel good about ourselves. So we don't want to cheat. On the other hand, we can cheat a little bit, and still feel good about ourselves."

He doesn't judge Lance Armstrong as being any different - or worse - than the rest of us. He cheated in a bigger way because the stakes were higher, and the system allowed him to do so.

All cheaters, whether big or small, have a huge ability to rationalize their actions as they manipulate the system, Ariely says. "They say, 'Everyone one else was doing it' or 'It was for a good cause.' "

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