After nearly 15 years of vehement denials, Armstrong may own up, it is rumored. He promises he’ll answer Oprah’s interview questions “directly, honestly and candidly.” Yet this is already a very public, social situation that even includes newspaper ads suggesting the questions Oprah should ask. He has alot at risk.
Like watching a kid actually pee in the pool rather than imagining how many people have, the stark reality of seeing Lance Armstrong admit to Oprah he was using drugs, if he does, will hit hard. That’s what Dan Ariely’s research indicates. He’s the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. When what was long rumored to be true becomes real, especially seeing it on TV, our feelings are more intensely felt and contagious. Here are some very human lessons we can learn, from Lance’s situation about the slippery slope of deceit, alleged and otherwise.
1. Soon after you tell a tiny lie or “borrow” something you may not return or deceive in some small way, beware of the stories you start telling yourself about it
Sometimes we rationalize because we want something bad enough. Like not thinking about the amount of pee that might be in the pool you are about to dive into, or believing the five–second rule of not eating something you just dropped on the floor, like that warm chocolate chip cookie. Who knows what stories those JP Morgan Chase managers told themselves when the deception started at the bank? Did they feel safer when banks’ reputations were tanking and CEO Jamie Dimon actually got the best title a banker could get at the time, “the least-hated banker in America”? Notes Ariely, “Now we have about three billion dollars to prove the contrary.”
2. Our delusion deepens as our cheating does
“We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sound reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better,” discovered Ariely via his experiments.
Warning: Peter Guber, in Tell to Win, advises us to create “purposeful narratives” that inspire others to play a role in our story, and, in so doing, reshape and share it. Yet that advice has a dark side when the storyteller has been successfully deceiving others with it and many have succumbed to the allure to play an unwitting or unsavory part.
3. Fight the fudge factor
Armstrong is charged with involving teammates and others with collectively organizing dope delivery and use, not with taking actual bribes. We are more tempted to be dishonest in situations where we can distance ourselves from the act. Writes Ariely, “the psychological distance between a dishonest act and its consequences creates a fudge factor of rationalization. Thus we are more likely to take computer paper home from work than money from a petty cash box. In an experiment, more MIT dorm students stole food from the dorm refrigerator than cash. Ariely worries that adoption of this fudge factor will become a more wide spread rationalization as we increasingly move towards cashless culture.