Like Lance Armstrong, we are all liars, experts say

January 21, 2013 by Melissa Healy

Although we profess to hate it, lying is common, useful and pretty much universal. It is one of the most durable threads in our social fabric and an important bulwark of our self-esteem. We start lying by the age of 4 and we do it at least several times a day, researchers have found. And we get better with practice.

In short, whatever you think about Lance Armstrong's admission this week that he took performance-enhancing drugs to fuel his illustrious cycling career, the lies he told may be no more persistent or outsized than yours, according to and others who study deception. They were just more public. And the stakes were bigger.

"People do it because it works," said Robert Feldman, dean of social and at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a leading researcher on the psychology of lying. "We get away with lies all the time. Usually they're minor: 'I love your tie.' 'You did a great job.' But in some cases they're bigger, and in Armstrong's case, he was pretty confident he could get away with it."

It's not easy to lie. Psychologists and have found that - initially, at least - deceit requires mental exertion for most of us. The effort to reconcile a lie with the truth - or with our notions of ourselves as good people - takes up so much that as we do it, we may actually forget to perform such effortless acts as blinking.

To sustain a lie for years, and against mounting evidence of its untruth, liars large and small must "develop an infrastructure around it," Feldman said - a litany of justifications that makes it possible to cling to deception and convince ourselves that we are good people in spite of it.

"But as time goes on, it gets easier," Feldman said.

For Armstrong, who has been stripped of seven titles and an Olympic bronze medal, the justifications for his long-standing were on full display during two nights of televised interviews with Oprah Winfrey. Acknowledging that he took a forbidden drug that increases oxygen retention in the blood, he noted that his dose was "not a lot." He said he rationalized his illicit use of testosterone by convincing himself that it probably made up for the loss of the male hormone that resulted from his treatment for testicular cancer.

"It's probably a tribute to the human ability to rationalize," said Daniel Ariely, a Duke University behavioral economist and author of the book "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty." "We really have this amazing capacity to tell ourselves the story about why what we're doing doesn't represent dishonesty in any way."

Although we may lavish our indignation on the practice, lying certainly isn't rare. During a 10-minute conversation between two strangers, 60 percent lied at least once, Feldman reported in a 2002 study in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Those told an average of two to three fibs.

Although men were more likely to lie to make themselves feel good, women more often lied to make their conversation partner feel good. Either way, Feldman said, the urge to make oneself likable and competent was a powerful motivator.

To lie in the first place, as well as to keep the lie going over time, requires two things: motivation and justification. Whether the motivation is money, fame, status or the high esteem of others, it must be counterbalanced with enough justification that we can sustain our image of ourselves as good people, said Shaul Shalvi, a psychologist at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

In his lab in the Negev desert, Shalvi found evidence that when faced with an opportunity to lie, subjects made a quick but precise calculation of that balance. Study participants were shown to a quiet place and given a die to roll. What they came up with on their first roll would determine their reward, they were told: the higher the roll, the more money they would be given.

When given three chances to roll, subjects frequently lied, reporting not the value of their first roll but of their highest roll, Shalvi and colleagues found. But when they had only one chance to roll the die, far fewer of them lied: given a single, clear outcome, subjects could not "fudge" the truth with the justification that they had, after all, gotten a higher number at some point in the game. The results were published last year in the journal Psychological Science.

For Lance Armstrong, Shalvi said, the decision to lie could have been easy. With much to gain - and hence, high motivation - Armstrong could tell himself he was inspiring people with his story of triumph over cancer; that he was using his fame and money to help cancer patients and find a cure; that he was universally admired for his grit and his skill as an athlete and a team leader.

Armstrong probably drew on these lofty accomplishments not only to justify his denials of using banned substances, Shalvi said: They would probably have been a crucial piece of personal armor as Armstrong lashed out at those who crossed him, telling lies and filing lawsuits that hurt teammates and backers.

Not all of us tell lies so big, or for so long, Shalvi said. Some of us are also cognitively better equipped to lie - and therefore, more likely to do so.

In a series of experiments, Ariely and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School assessed a wide range of cognitive skills in a group of volunteers and then put them through a battery of challenges that gave them ample opportunity to lie and cheat. Those subjects who had scored highest on attributes such as creativity and flexible thinking - but not intelligence - were most likely to engage in deceitful behavior. And when subjects were encouraged to think creatively as they completed the tasks, they were more likely to take shortcuts and stray from the truth.

"Not only do naturally creative people cheat more than uncreative people," Ariely and Gino wrote in a 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Subjects cajoled into thinking outside the box became cheaters too. This suggests that the creative process isn't just tied to dishonest behavior: it actually enables it."

People who are highly creative appear to have the vision and the flexibility of mind to find for their deceptions, and quickly, Ariely said. For Armstrong, whose racing style suggests he was creative and flexible in taking advantage of openings to victory, those same qualities might have allowed him freer rein not only in concocting deceptions, but in justifying them to himself.

"This is how lies become self-perpetuating," Ariely said.

Explore further: Study: We lie when we're short on time or feel justified to do so

Related Stories

Study: We lie when we're short on time or feel justified to do so

September 5, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Almost all of us have been tempted to lie at some point, whether about our GPA, our annual income, or our age. But what makes us actually do it?

Deception can be perfected

December 6, 2012
With a little practice, one could learn to tell a lie that may be indistinguishable from the truth.

Recommended for you

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

How past intentions influence generosity toward the future

January 17, 2018
Over time, it really is the thought that counts – provided we know what that thought was, suggests new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Tracking the impact of early abuse and neglect

January 17, 2018
Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2013
Academia and moral equivalence strikes again.
"We all lie, so Armstrong isn't that bad".
No, he's worse.
Lying about your weight or age, or academic background to a date does not cheat people out of their livelihoods.
Normal people do not attack their accusers using the immense machinery of fame and money to silence them.
Maybe these fools think that Bernie Madoff was just being creative.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.