The latest viral hashtag on Twitter is #teoing, which features pictures of male college students with their arms around an invisible girlfriend. They are meant to be humorous, but speak to a larger societal issue — a culture of lies.
While it is not possible to say whether Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o is a victim or perpetrator in the fake girlfriend hoax, his story, paired with cyclist Lance Armstrong’s admitted doping on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network last week, represents someone foisting a big lie into the cultural mainstream.
Researchers at Zhejiana Normal University in China and at Northwestern University found that lying “becomes more automatic upon training.” When people practice deception, it is simply easier to lie, in turn making it harder to differentiate from the truth.
It is no longer limited to pulling a deception among one’s peers. Rather, the practice of lying often turns into whirlwinds of deceit that grow into grand scandals. One of the grandest went all the way up to the president of the United States and forced his resignation.
And the repercussions usually share a theme of “sorry, I got caught” rather than just the one-word apology, as in the case of former Cincinnati Reds player Pete Rose, who was involved in a betting scandal. Rose told Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig: “I didn’t think I’d get caught.”
Everyone from the elementary school student who said the dog ate his homework to members of the media who exaggerate or invent their stories have violated a moral imperative to tell the truth.
But that is not always the case. The First Amendment’s freedoms apparently protect lying to some degree.
In an infamous 1997 whistleblower case between the Fox affiliate WTVT in Tampa and former employees, who were allegedly fired for “refusing to knowingly include false information” in a segment about milk production company Monsanto giving their cows drugs to speed up the milk process, an appellate court ruled in favor of Fox that violating the Federal Communications Commission news distortion policy is not against the law.
Ronald Fisher, a cognitive psychology professor at Florida International University, says that detecting deception is difficult. During the Armstrong interview, viewers tended to watch his body language rather than actually listen to what he was saying.
“We pay less attention to exactly what they say,” Prof. Fisher said, which makes it harder to perceive the lie.
The Armstrong saga is a stark reminder that some are willing to lie and risk the possibility of shame in return for instant rewards. His collapse is likewise a reminder that the risk is ultimately not worth the final price.