After nearly 15 years of vehement denials, Armstrong may confess, it is widely rumored. In a high risk interview, he promises to answer Oprah's questions "directly, honestly and candidly." Like watching a kid actually pee in the pool rather than imagining how many people have, the stark reality of seeing Lance Armstrong actually admit he was using drugs will hit hard. When what is long rumored to be true becomes real, especially seeing it on TV, our feelings are more intensely felt and contagious, according to Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Here are some very human deceit-avoidance lessons we can learn, from Lance's situation:
1. Soon after you do some small thing wrong 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. When the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better," discovered Ariely.
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. Ariely worries that adoption of this fudge factor will become a more wide spread rationalization as we increasingly move towards cashless culture.
4. When forced to give up a deception, become the (former) sinner who saves others
Maybe Lance can pull off a Frank Abagnale pivot into a fresh chapter of his public life story. Abagnale turned his adventures as a clever con man into a Catch Me If You Can book that became a movie and Broadway play. He transformed himself into a highly paid speaker and consultant who "reveals how he learned to live on the right side of the law." Of course he had to spend five years in prison first. Armstrong already started down that redemptive path, founding the popular cancer cure foundation, even if he recently had to leave it behind.
5. A wild idea for Armstrong's personal and brand redemption
Perhaps, Armstrong could join forces with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens who just got blackballed from the Hall of Fame. They could start down the path of re-branding themselves by ardently advocating measures to reduce the temptation for budding athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs -- or otherwise cheat.
That's taking two lessons from Chris Christie's unlikely allies playbook: boldly, at the risk of losing some allies, putting your core constituency first, in part by forging problem-addressing and power-leveraging, perhaps temporary alliances with President Obama and Andrew Cuomo.
Also, I'll bet the much-respected co-authors of Help the Helper might find such an athlete-centered cause in keeping with the core message of their book, how to spur selfless behavior in support of a tight-knit, pro athlete team and actual boost team performance in so doing. Along the way they could hone a new facet of their personality.
6. In a connected world it's less likely you will get away with lying... for long
It make take a long time yet, ultimately, the deception will catch up with you. The bigger the lie, the more viral the story, especially if you are a public person and, increasingly, we all are. Here are two recent, powerful examples of what I'll dub the Boomerang of Public Betrayal:
One: Dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis lie
According to Benjamin Schwartz's chilling story in the Atlantic, more than anyone else, President Kennedy brought us the closest to nuclear war yet managed to make his role look heroic in setting up what was falsely dubbed "The Cuban missile crisis." While leaders in many other countries were horrified at the depth of deception and the danger Kennedy and his brother sparked with that situation, most Americans thought he was protecting our country, until now.
Two: Story revived by a documentary
Over 20 years after Anita Hill was subpoenaed to testify in a packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas's sexual harassment of her, Sundance Film Festival has four sold-out screenings of Anita a documentary about that time. That means a whole new generation will hear the story for the first time, as older generations and the sitting judge experiencing it again. The long tails of good and bad reputations are likely to get amplified over time, and the past is, sometimes unfortunately searchable. From Oprah's affectionate interview of Lance in 2004:
Oprah: Don't you hate to lose?
Lance: Yes, but if you get beat but you didn't make any mistakes and your preparation was perfect, then you realize that someone else was just better. I think I can live with that.
Increasingly we live in glass houses in this ever more connected world so throwing life lines to others will get you farther than throwing stones at them. It is never to late to tell the truth to yourself and others. We always have the opportunity to:
• Recognize sooner we are on a slippery slope towards greater dishonesty and alter our behavior
• Fess up to a secret to start on a redemptive path where some people, especially those most precious to us, may grow to trust us again
• Support others in saving face and self-correcting, especially as they continue to self-correct. It will probably help us self-correct sooner too.