ClemensGate: Why Liars Make Us So Upset

08/23/2010 03:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Roger Clemens' indictment for lying to federal investigators is provoking lots of passionate chatter about lying. But what explains the visceral depth of enmity toward Clemens, or Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa or any of the zillions of athletes who have apparently lied about their illegal use of performance enhancing drugs, compared with their colleagues who acknowledged their cheating, fessed up, and moved on? Why does lying evoke such strong emotions, and honesty such forgiveness? What is it about lying that so sets our passions on fire that we want to light the liars pants on fire, presumably with them in it, because they've been dishonest? Or, as William Blake originally wrote in "The Liar";

"Deceiver, dissembler
Your trousers are alight
From what pole or gallows
Shall they dangle in the night?"

Being lied to hits us in a deep, dark, ancient, and very important place. It prompts
powerful emotions because it's tied to our instinct for survival. Being lied to triggers the same subconscious neural systems that go off when you feel endangered. Being lied to is a betrayal of trust, and trust is way more important than whether Roger Clemens' pitching stats ought to count. We are acutely sensitive to whom we can and can't trust, because our survival literally depends on it.

Humans are social animals. We depend on the tribe for our welfare, even our survival. Think about it. When the lion attacks, on our own we're lion chow. Together we stand a chance. So we have evolved exquisitely sensitive antennae for signals that tell us whether we can trust the guy next to us, because when the lion roars we need to know whether we can count on him. And one of the places in the brain most sensitive to signals about trust, is the amygdala, a small chunk of specialized cells down on top of the brain stem which is where fear begins.

The amygdala is your brain's first and most powerful radar for danger. It's constantly scanning all information, from your external senses to your internal thoughts and memories, for any hint of peril. The instant such a hint arises, the amygdala activates circuits and neural chemistry that we call the Fight or Flight response. A powerful visceral, subconscious, instinctive system leaps into action. Your heart speeds up. Blood pressure rises. Systems you need for survival, like muscles and hearing and vision, get turned up, and systems you don't need for immediate survival, like digestion and growth and fertility, get turned down. Show someone a picture of a snake - just a picture - and the amygdala sets off a Fight or Flight response. Same with spiders, or angry faces, or if you present the subject with...drum roll please...information about someone they can't trust! That's right. The same alarms in the brain that go off when you see a snake, go off when you feel mistrust. And the same powerful visceral subconscious 'protect me' reactions follow, because, to a social animal, trust in your fellow tribesman is so intimately connected with your survival! (There is a lot more detail on the fascinating connection between trust and fear in "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts".)

So, down in the hard wiring and chemistry of the brain's survival instincts, if you show someone a picture of Roger Clemens and talk about the charges that he lied, it's like showing them a picture of a snake. The mistrust response in the amygdala goes off. Liar = mistrust = danger = gut reaction = why we get so viscerally upset when people lie. And if you show somebody an image of pitcher Andy Pettitte, Clemens teammate for the Yankees and Houston Astros who admitted his own steroid use in a contrite apology, the amygdala does not send out a warning "Look out, we can't trust this guy", and we don't get angry, and we are more likely to forgive, because we're okay with somebody if we can trust them. As Mark Twain observed, "A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar." Or more trustworthy!

Athletes. Politicians. Journalists. Companies. Industries. Government agencies. The list of liars is long, and the evidence of how much damage these lies do is overwhelming. Our anger at being lied to is so strong, and that damage is so profound, because lies are at heart a violation of trust, a feeling powerfully connected to nothing less than our instincts for survival. It's stunning then, that in their own self-interest, that liars either don't either tell the truth in the first place and take the lesser hit from that, or fess up and try to restore trust when they are caught.