“At the time it did not feel wrong?” Winfrey asked.
“No,” Armstrong replied. “Scary.”
“Did you feel bad about it?” she pressed him.
“No,” he said. “Even scarier.”
“Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?”
“No,” Armstrong paused. “Scariest.”
(from Lance Armstrong’s Interview with Oprah Winfrey)
It is scary. Not just that Lance Armstrong lied about taking performance enhancing drugs during all 7 of his Tour de France wins. Nor that he bullied, sued and slandered people who tried to come clean. Or that he even believed his own lies in some way.
It’s scary because Lance did what we all do. Not on that scale perhaps, and not with millions of dollars at stake and millions of people watching, but we do it nonetheless.
The fact is, humans are exceptional liars, truth stretchers, story weavers, myth makers and data ignorers.
The problem is, we think of lying in black and white terms. There is a truth. And then there is a lie. But it doesn’t really work like that. It’s much more subtle business.
For instance, here’s an everyday lie most of us are guilty of:
I’ll do it tomorrow
How many times have we put something off reassuring ourselves that “we’ll do it tomorrow,” knowing full well that our track record shows zero probability that we’ll do it tomorrow. And yet, we fall for that line as if we’ve never heard it before.
Or, I’ve made the right decision.
What’s a “right” decision? Isn’t it just the one we’ve decided on, for a variety of reasons, that have to do with our preferences, biases, needs, some of which are unknown to us? We call it right to convince ourselves and others it’s a good choice, but in fact, it’s an experiment with an unknown outcome. We can make good choices, and we can make bad ones. But right ones? I’m not so sure that’s honest. Honest would be to acknowledge that we’re taking a risk, giving it our best shot, and hoping for the best, whether we’re talking about buying a house, choosing a career, or choosing a partner.
Our mind is a scary thing. It’s an incredible liar. We can and do convince ourselves of just about anything.
We make judgments about things, about people, and interpret our perceptions to confirm our beliefs. If we don’t like someone, or something, everything they do is interpreted through that feeling. And the more psychological sophistication we have, the better we are at this.
On the other hand, when we really want or like something or someone, and have invested time, money, or emotions into it, we tell ourselves it will work out, even as evidence points in the other direction. We spin the truth, exaggerate claims, disregard contrary data, all to prop up our desire.
And that’s just everyday life. What about a high pressure, competitive and all-consuming world like Lance lived in? Professional sports, college sports, billion dollar industries, the drive to stay in power, add high stakes, and you’ve got not just motive, but opportunity.
Context and environment shapes our decision making more than we think. Mostly this happens because of the pressure for one outcome, or one way of thinking which blocks out all other considerations. Researchers Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel call this ethical fading, the eroding of ethical considerations when making a decision because of the narrowed focus on one goal. As an example, they cite the Ford Motor Company executives in the 1970s, coolly weighing the costs of repairing a faulty gas tank in the Ford Pinto which ultimately costs more than two dozen lives, against the costs of litigation and compensation. They concluded it was cheaper to pay the legal costs than to repair the gas tanks and save human lives.
But here’s what’s scarier: When we read about that, or about Lance, we think it’s something we wouldn’t do.
And here’s what’s scariest: it’s not just something we could do but something we’ve probably already done, in our own way, in our own worlds. And we don’t even remember doing it.