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Armstrong case reflects lesson about human behavior

Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong

Beginning Thursday, the world gets to hear what disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong has to say to Oprah Winfrey about having been found to cheat his way to the top of his sport — after repeatedly denying pointed accusations that he’d been illegally blood-doping.

For the millions expected to watch the two-part interview, taped earlier this week, any sympathy harbored toward Armstrong as a world-class athlete and cancer survivor may be overshadowed by one nagging question: How can someone live with such a lie? And for such a long period of time, knowing he might be exposed someday?

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Those who study deception professionally do not claim to know the inner workings of Armstrong’s psyche. Nor do they automatically lump him with other high-profile figures who have been caught lying despite repeated denials, from business moguls (Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff) to con men (Christian Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a. “Clark Rockefeller”), or those suspected of cheating, such as baseball superstars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who failed to make the Hall of Fame this year after being dogged by charges of steroid use.

But if these observers are reluctant to judge Armstrong’s capacity for lying specifically, there are larger truths to be recognized in his case, they say. One is that human beings lie all the time, in ways big and small. Also, that otherwise rational people are often able to justify their deceptions to the point where living a lie and living a life are virtually indistinguishable.

“Like the rest of us who lie, and most of us do in our daily lives,” says University of Massachusetts psychology professor Robert Feldman, Armstrong’s apparent deception “is easy to push aside cognitively. For most people, it won’t eat away at them on a daily basis. We humans are good at compartmentalizing.”

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According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans rate the country’s state of moral values as “poor,” and 73 percent indicate it’s getting worse. Dishonesty, deception, and integrity (or lack thereof) are part of the problem, respondents said, along with loss of religious faith and a breakdown in family structure.

Armstrong probably slept well at night — although not lately, perhaps — because he figured out a way to justify the lies, Feldman suggests, possibly by rationalizing that other elite cyclists were doping, too. And because Armstrong is fiercely competitive by nature, and had much to lose in money and prestige by being exposed, he took on his accusers the only way he knew how: all-in and combatively.

‘You think you have good reasons to lie, or good intentions. But the people being deceived . . . don’t necessarily feel that way.’

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Moreover, according to Feldman, Bill Clinton is a prime example of a public figure who lied to protect himself — by denying he had sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — and later, after confessing, reclaimed some vestige of his credibility and moral standing. Clinton is now one of the country’s most admired public figures, if by no means universally beloved.

“I like to think people will look at [the Armstrong interview] through a broader context,” says Feldman, author of “The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships,” which focuses on lying and deception in everyday life.

“The reality is, people lie all the time — ‘I love the report you gave,’ for instance — and tell you what you want to hear. Lance Armstrong is like the rest of us. He lied in a very public way and got caught. Most of us lie, and most of us don’t get caught. If others hadn’t come forward, I’m sure he’d still be living the lie.”

Moral philosopher and author Sissela Bok, whose books include “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” agrees that lying is prevalent throughout this society and others, often starting with small steps and at a young age. Step by step, the lies can build to what seems like the point of no return.

“We all know what it’s like to deceive someone, to be deceived, and to be suspected of deceiving,” says Bok, a senior visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies, who like Feldman is wary of judging Armstrong’s case without knowing more details about it.

From a liar’s perspective, “You’re very optimistic about not getting caught,” adds Bok. “Also, you think you have good reasons to lie, or good intentions. But the people being deceived — investors, public citizens, whoever — don’t necessarily feel that way.”

Bok differentiates between people with some semblance of a conscience who lie and those who feel no remorse whatsoever. But for both, the day of reckoning, should it come, can be painful. Some former teammates of Armstrong’s say the cyclist has ruined lots of lives, she notes.

“And that should bother someone,” she said. “But it may not.”

Colorado-based blogger and writer Bob Brown runs the website Deceptology.com. Dedicated to the “study of deception,” the site examines phenomena ranging from pranks and hoaxes to fraud and lying on a Madoff-esque scale. A former magician, Brown theorizes that Armstrong is such a competitive, Type A personality that he may not even acknowledge he’s been lying — or cheating — by living in an I’m-not-guilty bubble that finally bursts.

“Some of us who don’t lie can’t wrap our heads around that,” Brown acknowledges.

Magicians actually fight something called “magician’s guilt,” he says, where they acknowledge deliberately deceiving people for the purpose of entertaining them. If they dwell too much on the betrayal aspect, they cannot perform effectively. So they must rationalize the deception — or find another gig.

“An analogy would be, you lie on your resume because you need the job to feed your family,” says Brown. “You find a way to fit the lie into your personality.”

Brown has written nearly 3,000 blog posts on various aspects of lying and deceiving.

“Nothing surprises me about what people will lie about, especially to preserve their worldview,” he says. “Magicians, con men, people who cheat on their spouses — they all use the same principles underneath.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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