Lying liars lie!

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Lying liars lie!

It’s been a great year for deceit. Deception seems to be everywhere. Take the late, unlamented U.S. political season — when an army of fact-checkers revealed a reduced respect for reality — especially on the part of the shadowy crews unleashed after the erosion of money-in-politics regulations.

And then that sorry spectacle was capped by pop idol Beyonce lip-synching the Star Spangled Banner at President Obama’s inauguration.

More seriously, we’re still agog at the Manti T’eo freak show, where the only certainty is that somebody was being deceived. Briefly, T’eo, a Notre Dame linebacker and hot pro prospect, was engaged in a year-long, electronic relationship with a mysterious woman who “died” before they met.

The affair caricatured a romance novel written for a sports-mad era: T’eo called the incorporeal “Lennay Kekua” the “love of my life,” but forced to choose between her funeral and an important game, decided to play ball:

“…Lennay’s funeral was the same day of the Michigan game. And because, before Lennay passed away, we had a conversation. She said tell me this, if anything happens, will you just send me white roses and say you’ll play. She said all I want is white roses.”

Although the story climaxed just as T’eo was up for the Heisman Trophy, the biggest individual award in college football, he claims the mantle of victim, not hoaxer.

The T’eo show was a one-night stand compared to the decade-plus cycle-opera of Lance Armstrong — who’s slithered from paramount bike racer of his generation into cheater numero uno. After flatly denying rumors, and attacking those who fingered him for practicing better living through chemistry, Armstrong’s doping has been revealed — by other dopers who raced alongside him.

Doping Highlights of the Tour de France

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Photo credits: Riis–Anders, Ullrich–Anders, Pantani–Wikimedia Commons, Armstrong–Vélocia, Landis–Frank Steele, Contador–PortaldelSur ES

The Oct. 10, 2012 report from the U.S. Anti-doping Agency was unequivocal: “Together these different categories of eyewitness, documentary, first-hand, scientific, direct and circumstantial evidence reveal conclusive and undeniable proof that brings to the light of day for the first time this systemic, sustained and highly professionalized team-run doping conspiracy.”

The drug of choice in recent years has been erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates production of red blood cells that ferry oxygen to the muscles. Cyclists also engaged in “blood doping,” storing their own blood for transfusion just before a race.

Armstrong did not contest the Anti-Doping decision, and was stripped of seven Tour de France titles (1999-2005). But because doping was so rampant in pro cycling at that time, those races are now devoid of official winners.

Lying about doping are not just a cycling thing. The recent selection for baseball’s Hall of Fame inducted exactly nobody — as the top candidates, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons and Sammy Sosa — were alleged ardent users of artificial steroid hormones. And this week, we hear a report that star Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was taking performance-enhancing drugs.

As Armstrong slides into disgrace and Ponzi-prince Bernie Madoff, convicted of a multi-billion dollar fraud, savors a life in prison, we have to wonder: Have people always been lying at this rate, or is truth-telling going out like the rotary phone? Does the digisphere make it easier to lie — or help us uncover deception?

Headshot of grey-haired Madoff wearing light blue collared shirt

The financial manipulator Bernie Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of people of an estimated $18 billion. His bogus promise proved so compelling that his marks fell for an investment scheme whose relentless returns were obviously too good to be true. Madoff, who supposedly described his scam as “one big lie,” was sentenced to 150 years in prison in 2009.

One thing seems clear: Many, even most of us, are suckers for an outlandish story if it’s satisfying to our hearts, brains or wallets:

With the right investment strategy, we can earn money whether markets rise or fall (Madoff).

A man who beats cancer can be an inspiration to cancer patients and win the world’s hardest race seven times in a row (Armstrong).

A college football player can prove his romantic devotion by “playing for” a lover he never met, even if that entails skipping her funeral.

Let me tell you a story

Incredible lies succeed because the story is so compelling, says John Llewellyn, a communications and public relations expert at Wake Forest University. No investor expects to return returns as regular as the tides, so don’t you want to invest with Madoff, who has found the secret to doing just that?

“With Armstrong especially, this was such a perfect story: beating cancer, getting back and winning the tour umpty-ump times,” says Llewellyn.

Just as it’s easier to throw a ball with the wind at your back, we tend to trust and accept ideas and propositions we already believe in, Llewellyn adds. “If somebody in my [political] party plays fast and loose [with the facts], that is regrettable, a misdemeanor, but if I don’t like their politics fundamentally, it’s a sign of a massive character flaw.”


Man laying in hospital bed with head lifted while he listens to another man read from a piece of paper.

Jim Thatcher reads the Lance Armstrong Foundation Manifesto to John Slatin, presumably a cancer patient. The foundation (now called Livestrong) has focused on supporting and encouraging cancer patients.

If we want to believe that cancer can be a way-station to athletic success, we’re more likely to believe it when we “see it.”

A bit of nationalism helped Armstrong as well, says Llewellyn. “There is a home team-quality to our reactions sometimes.” Armstrong, who paraded in victory through Paris holding an American flag, “was an American winning at a sport that Americans don’t know much about, and winning in France, which is our opposite number in policy and social mores, so it shows a kind of ethnocentrism.”

Armstrong founded the group now called Livestrong, which fights “to improve the lives of people affected by cancer.” As the allegations swirled around him, Armstrong parted ways with the group in December, 2012.

Telling the truth about lying

So what does science say about lying?

Small plastic bottle of clear antibacterial gel.
Photo: john yaya

✓ Lying makes you feel dirty. For a 2010 study, Norbert Schwarz, of the University of Michigan psychology department, asked participants to imagine they were competing for a job, and then falsely deny that they had found a document that would help a competitor. Afterwards, as part of a purported marketing survey, the people rated mouthwash, hand sanitizer and other products. Participants who lied on the phone felt a stronger desire for mouthwash; those who lied on e-mail favored hand sanitizer. “This study shows how ‘concrete’ the metaphorical links are between abstract and concrete domains of life,” Schwarz said via press release. “Not only do people want to clean up after a dirty deed, they want to clean the specific body part involved.”1

✓ Not lying makes you healthy. Telling the truth when tempted to lie can significantly improve mental and physical health, according to a 2012 study. “Recent evidence indicates that Americans average about 11 lies per week. We wanted to find out if living more honestly can actually cause better health,” said Anita Kelly, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame in a press release. “We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health.” Weekly self-reports of mental and physical health for both the control group and the group instructed to stop telling lies improved if they told fewer lies. The link was stronger for the no-lie folks, who also began to see themselves as more honest during the 10-week experiment.

hand holding pen poised on top of opened white notebook, ready to write
Photo: Melvin E

✓ Writing lies leaves traces. A 2009 study at the University of Haifa, Israel, found differences in pen movement and pressure when people wrote the truth compared to fiction. Study participants who were asked to lie pressed harder on the pen, and altered the height and length of their letters. The researchers concluded that liars spend more mental effort controlling behavior that is normally automatic, altering the mechanics and outcome of writing.

✓ Some parents “parent by lying.” American parents often say “honesty is the best policy,” but they often lie to their kids, according to research2 by Gail Heyman, professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego. In one case, a mother told her child that if he didn’t finish all of his food he would get pimples. College students told the researchers their parents had lied to them yet proclaimed that lying was wrong. “We are surprised … even the parents who most strongly promoted the importance of honesty with their children engaged in parenting by lying,” co-author Kang Lee, of the University of Toronto, said in a press release.

✓ You may miss an online lie. In a recent study of online dating3, Catalina Toma, an assistant professor of communication arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that would-be daters tended to skirt topics like weight or age that they’d lied about in their online profile, probably trying to deflect attention from the lie. The mental demands of concocting untruths likely explained the comparative brevity of liar’s self-descriptions. The study found that software, but not living humans, could sort legit profiles from phonies.

In Notre Dame football jersey with pads under shoulders, Te’o stands on sideline, helmet off but bandana wrapped around head and black strips under his eyes.

Photo of Manti T’eo by Neon Tommy

What role digitality?

That last item could explain Manti T’eo’s difficulty, and it would be hard to beat his unfolding psychodrama for highlighting the power of digital communication. You remember: The Notre Dame linebacker, runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, who played football rather than attend the funeral of his highly theoretical lover, Lennay Kekua.

If you imagine her, she will come.

This is not the only instance of a romantic relationship with an e-lover, according to Nev Schulman, creator of Catfish, a TV documentary series about people who, like Schulman himself, have fallen for an all-electronic, all-the-time lover.

Technology: facilitator, or cop on the beat?

Certainly, e-love is enabled by the rush to electronic communication, but digital media can make such deception easier — or harder, says Toma. “The trend is that people believe there is more deception with new communication technologies. This stems from their disembodied nature, you can communicate with others without being physically present, without seeing or hearing them.”

But if you look more closely at what media can do, Toma says the picture gets complicated:

Recordability fosters honesty. “If you said it in email, you can’t use the excuse that you did not say it. Having the digital trace can be helpful in tracking down the truth.”

Anonymity promotes deception. “Because there is no consequence, things can’t be tied to you.”

Connectivity promotes honesty. “In Facebook, you are making a statement in front of a network of friends. They know you, and can verify the accuracy.”

Asynchronicity (the potential time lag between writing and sending a message) promotes deception. “You have a lot of time to construct the message, to be strategic and optimize” the lie.

None of which tells us how much people are actually lying, or whether lying is becoming more or less common. The human animal always has a diffident relationship to the truth. “We find a big discrepancy in how much people report themselves lying, and how much they think other people are lying,” Toma says. “The average person believes that others lie more than they themselves do.”

“White lies” in social situations can be harmless — and even beneficial — as they avoid needless insults.

When the subject is online dating — the titillating focus of the T’eo tragicomedy, “People believe that the majority of people doing online dating are lying,” Toma says. “People expect a lot of deception in new media, but that’s not what the studies show. A lot of people assume it’s so easy to lie over technology, you just type something, but people don’t lie because they can, they lie because of a motivation. And it’s not like people were not hoaxed before the Internet.”

Who uses, who loses?

The motivations for lying can be obvious: Madoff made off with billions. Armstrong became Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 2002, and his guesstimated $100-million fortune was entirely dependent on his racing laurels.

Although bike racers were dipping into the dispensary before Armstrong was born, his history of intimidating and attacking those who tried to blow the whistle on his chemical-assist adds a layer of inimical insult to his record.

Athletes have always sought advantage, says Llewellyn. In the olden days, for example, pitchers scuffed the baseball to make their pitches more erratic. “But at some point, you get beyond this cavalier, Robin Hood thing, you are into venal destructive behavior, that is in fact designed to create personal advantage while eroding the fabric of society. The most sacred concept, in some people’s view, is the notion of a contract, a promise. If you say you will be at lunch, and you don’t show, that’s not a big deal, but if say you will be faithful to your partner in a marriage ceremony, and you aren’t, that could be a big deal.”

At the least, Llewellyn says, Armstrong’s contract with his team’s sponsor, the U.S. Postal Service, prohibited doping. “When you sign a contract that says you won’t cheat, and know you will cheat, that is not a matter about the price tag.”


Seven yellow jerseys line the walls of a room with Lance Armstrong reclined on couch underneath them.

After his fall from grace, Lance Armstrong still has the jerseys from his record seven wins at the Tour de France — but those titles were stripped due to his record of lying, doping and intimidation. After being cured of nearly fatal cancer in 1996, Armstrong became the best bike racer in the world — and a vocal advocate for cancer survivors. For more than a decade, Armstrong was living a lie, and his compelling story of luck, determination, hard work and concern for cancer patients dissolved over the past year.

With T’eo, the benefits are as obscure as the identity of the perpetrator. The hoax may have been a prank that went awry. If T’eo — despite his denials — helped pull it off, it could have been a sympathy play for the Heisman judges.

At the least, the T’eo hoaxer broke the public trust, Llewellyn says.

We hate lying — except of course when we’re doing it ourselves. If a lingering respect for morality makes us feel dirty while lying, what exactly is morality? “It’s about trying to live in a world in which avoidable harm to other people is prevented,” says Timm Triplett, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire.

“We need not presuppose a god, a religion or supernatural punishment,” says Triplett. “Morality is a way that humans could live that is better for all concerned. It’s in all our long-term interests if we live in a society where these rules are in place.”

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; Emily Eggleston, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Spike W.S. Lee et al, Dirty Hands and Dirty Mouths…, Psychological Science, October 2010 21: 1423-1425
  2. Parenting by lying, Gail D. Heyman Journal of Moral Education, Volume 38, Issue 3, 2009
  3. What lies beneath: The linguistic traces of deception in online dating profiles, Catalina Toma et al, Journal of Communication, 78-97, 2012
  4. How often does the average person lie?
  5. Ten lies that made the big time
  6. Are white lies okay?
  7. Top six ways people lie
  8. Heroes and villians: science fiction’s biggest liars