Scary. Scarier. Scariest

“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.

26 Responses so far.

  1. robin Sierra says:

    very much like what you have said regarding ‘right decisions’. it is scary to know there is always the unknown and easier to make an internal decision and believe it is the right one. seems like a balance for those of us who sometimes have trouble standing behind our decisions with power. how to move forward with power and yet simultaneously know that we will never know how the future will unfold.

  2. Christopher Allen says:

    I’m so glad to hear something written on Lance Armstrong and see it contextualized in this way. It really was “us” – we were with Lance. I remember how many extra people would ride and put on USPS jerseys during the Tour de France when he was winning. And now, at least for me, I’m with him in studying this profound ethical fading and looking at this as a global concept that seems to happen everywhere and is in our global psyche.

  3. Lisa Diamond Stein says:

    When I read about Lance I know it’s something I would never do because I have a conscience, and have to sleep at night.

    But then I think about stretching the truth on the job application and wonder if that’s in the same category?

    • juliediamond says:

      Well, I suppose it’s also a matter of scale. Certainly no one got injured (slandered, sued, libeled) when you stretched the truth, but I think it’s worth remembering just how easy it is to slide down that slippery slope.

  4. Violetta Ilkiw says:

    This is so good Julie. How does one get their blog on huffing ton post? This needs to be on the huff. It needs to be shared and read widely.

  5. Mary says:

    Very provocotive and rightly so. It’s easy to see Lance as “not me” and yet, like you say, we do this ourselves in our own way. The question is, Lance hurt a lot of people and sullied the sport, in a certain way. When I put things off until tomorrow or have made “the right decision”. Hopefully, I’m hurting myself, but not others. Am I fooling myself, or “kidding” myself? And yes, I am at times effecting others…yes, Lance is reflecting back to us what we are all capable of.
    That said – I do so agree with the delicate balance of judgement through my feelings. I jump to conclusions out of my own discomfort and diminish that their is a real person on the other side.

  6. Ian Curtin says:

    I agree we all do it. And it is usually my ego that is behind the decision. I want to prove something to somebody or I am afraid of what they will do to me. As long as I let my ego function without consciously weighing the costs and benefits of my decision, moral and ethical sliding happens – small and large. When this happens I am not connected with what is noble inside me. And that’s the rub for me. My ego and noble self are functioning at the same time. Which one is running the show? I can only really tell if I make the descent into a deeper level of knowing which is not just a mind game. It includes my feeling wisdom, the wisdom of my heart. That’s why we have the saying, “in my heart of hearts…” When I seriously weigh the costs and benefits of letting my ego run my life, I am less likely to forget my “Lance” decisions. I remember just how destructive my behaviour can become.

  7. Jackie says:

    It is really hard to compare everyday situations to Lance Armstrong…I don’t think on most people’s worse day would they call someone a liar (that was telling the truth) and then sue them for being a liar. The horific way Lance treated people – many his closest friends – is the true crime. So many cyclists have doped – a terrible consequence largely created by the cycling culture (Read Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race” if you aren’t close to the culture and want to better understand it.) Abusing your body, cheating in a race, or lying don’t compare to the way he misused people.

    • juliediamond says:

      Hi jackie, yes, it’s true. the situation, the stakes, the scale of Lance’s lies don’t compare to everyday situations. And Lance is an extreme case no doubt, but what got him there is something human, very human. Something we don’t all do, but something we’re capable of doing.

  8. Joel Gunz says:

    Very insightful post. You’ve mapped mapped the specific topography of what we do when our best selves call each other and ourselves out on our bull—-.

    It’s as big as the justifications for war and genocide and as small as stretching our unemployment benefits rather than diligently looking for work.

    I’m not sure if lying is even bad. Dishonesty is so deeply entrenched in the social contract that Wittgenstein downgraded it from a moral failure to a mere “language game.”

    I think the really issue is to be aware of it so that we can either lie or tell the truth in full self-awareness. Because, Armstrong showed, it’s the unconscious dishonesty that does the most damage.
    People criticized his Oprah interview because he still seemed to be lying. But this time around, he seemed also to be aware of the dishonesty and that’s what I’m guessing made the interview so painful to watch. But in that, I see progress. At least, now, he’s making his choices consciously. And, my gut says that he lied, not to protect himself, but to protect others. I think that’s a better intention.

  9. Vickie Diamond says:

    Wow this is really great. Never thought to look at this controversy in that way, really sheds a new light on this issue for me. The rest of the world needs to read this!!

  10. DorianTB says:

    Julie, your post really gave me plenty of food for thought. Since we’re all only human, I think pretty much everyone convinces themselves they’d never cheat or lie or bend the truth, but as the saying goes, “Everyone has his/her price.” Even the kindest, most decent person is faced with at least bending the truth, because we all want to believe the best of ourselves. Guess we all need reminders that even folks who mean well can reach a breaking point. Thanks for sharing your great post!

  11. Nina Diamond says:

    Great article Julie! Your insights are very thought provoking.

  12. parker says:

    Thank you. Lying, self-deception, and justification are things I do daily as you pointed out. Would I consciously throw others under the bus to protect myself? Maybe I would. What does redemption look like? From whose perspective? Forgiveness? Compassion? Atonement? Self-compassion. Lots to consider. Peace.

  13. Terry says:

    All this news came out shortly after I read Lance Armstrong’s autobiographical “It’s not about the bike.” I’m glad to read the perspective here to help rehabilitate him a little with the common tribe. I didn’t want to believe he cheated and lied, but I was not surprised about the drugs after noting how hard he worked and how concentrated he was on every little ion in his body while getting back into shape after the cancer. Let’s face it, drugs were a very marginal part of his wins. The bigger part was that he rode his ass off. The ethics get fuzzy in context and it’s hard for me to take him off the pedestal of his many achievements. At one point in his book, Lance said, “I didn’t mean to be an asshole, I was just Texan.” That makes me grimace, but I’m willing to let it pass.

  14. Bernard Brookes says:

    This is good and very interesting. But is it really so dishonest? But rather being extremely honest with the ego part of ourselves which is striving for power (and is scared too – as Lance came out with in the interview), so much so that all the other parts of our consciousness and the world around are lost in the mist? Is our challenge a continual one to recognise that in ourselves and others and switch on awareness of ourselves and others..? And it’s a relief that the interview actually took place.

  15. Ivan Verny says:

    Dear Julie,
    i am a sporadic reader, so here’s a late response and i am very grateful how you lay out the dimensions of lying – THANK YOU – especially lying to ourselves. And although it is less immoral putting things off by “I’ll do that to-morrow” than risking other people’s lives or money, i still do feel ashamed in front of my inner ethics committee – and collect that shame.
    Keep writing, dear Julie, i love your texts.
    Hugs, ivan

    • juliediamond says:

      Thanks Ivan – that inner ethics committee” is something I’ll be thinking about from now on. You’re right, the amount of risk and immorality differs. But it’s a matter of scale, so in my mind, we’re in it too!

  16. Okokon Udo says:

    Just this past weekend, I found myself cheering Tiger Woods on to victory from the comfort of my couch. Somehow, it made me feel okay that he was bouncing back because his life of lies and cheating were too close for comfort. It revealed my weaknesses and parts of me I would rather disavow. Not unlike the Armstrong saga. Thanks Julie for connecting it all for me and helping me stay with the discomfort of seeing myself in Lance and Tiger both in their victory and place of lies and shame. Love, Okokon

    • juliediamond says:

      Thanks Okokon, I like that you bring in the victory as well as defeat. I also found myself happy the Tiger was finding his way back. Everyone deserves a shot at redemption, as Paul Simon says ;)

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