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Why people lie: What Armstrong’s admission might teach us

Armstrong's interview has left many of us wondering what motivates people to lie on such a massive scale. (Get …The rumblings have been around for years, getting stronger than ever this fall. So when Lance Armstrong finally admitted he doped up during all seven of his Tour de France wins, the admission came as less of a shock than a massive disappointment.

What has shocked people is how callously and vehemently Armstrong lied about it for so many years, even going so far as to sue The Sunday Times for libel, then happily accepting the large settlement for essentially being able to convince the court of his dishonesty.

Armstrong’s reputation has been irreparably shot down and a former inspirational icon has proved both a fraud and a liar. The first part of his much anticipated Oprah interview aired last night, and amid a sea of admissions and half-apologies, many were likely left wondering what drives a person to lie on such an enormous scale, and what does it say about the character of someone who does?

Also see: Why celebs like Lance Armstrong choose Oprah for their confessions

Psychologists who have studied the phenomenon seem to believe these people have a few characteristics in common, some of which begin in childhood. Our first example often starts out – innocently enough – from our own parents.

"We think that we're always telling our kids to be honest and always tell the truth, but the reality is there are instances where we do quite the opposite," says Dr. Robert Feldman, author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships. "We'll say, 'Grandma knit you this new sweater. She's going to come over and give it to you. I know you're not going to like it but tell her that you love it.'"

As children get older, they may be driven by the desire to extract oneself from an uncomfortable situation. The problem manifests, however, when a person finds their lies a little too effective.

“Desperate due to procrastination, heavy course loads, the need to work, students make a tiny foray into the world of the excuse-maker and liar,” writes professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne on Psychology Today. “They aren't called on their ‘family emergency’ by their instructor, so the next time they become more bold. Getting away with the excuse or lie strengthens their inclination to lie the next time.”

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Later on, some of these students become emboldened by the success of their little lies and may even start to believe them, engaging in what Whitbourne calls “Memory distortions.” This is when the problem starts its maiden descent down Snowball Hill.

“What psychologists call source memory, or our recall for where something happened to us, can be faulty, and we forget that we told that tiny fib. The fib becomes part of our long-term memory,” she adds.

This type of narrative reconstruction sounds awfully similar to the way Armstrong tried to justify his actions.

“I looked up the definition of a cheat to gain an advantage. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field,” he tells Oprah.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why people continue to construct mountains upon mountains of lies, to protect their positive sense of identity.

“People want to believe that they are ethical, honest, and morally upstanding. They will go through all sorts of mental shenanigans to maintain this view, even when their behavior is in direct conflict with ‘reality’. Rather than admit that they lied, cheated, or worse, they twist the facts around so that, in their minds, they didn't,” says Whitbourne.

Also see: Are people still wearing Livestrong bracelets?

They may also be motivated by a strong desire to get what they want – whether it be fame, fortune, or even social recognition on a small scale at work or among friends.

“I took that attitude – the ruthless, relentless, win-at-all-costs attitude – into cycling. That was, in my view, part of the job,” says Armstrong.

But experts also urge us to look at our own habits and truth distortions before vilifying others.

"Here's the important piece: Even good people cheat," says CNN’s Dr. Wendy Walsh. "All human beings lie, even if it's a white lie: Oh, you look great in those jeans!

The problem is when tiny white lies become continent-sized fabrications or have the capacity to hurt others. These are the lies that cause us to question the morals and values of the other person.

“I will spend the rest of my life trying to win back trust and apologizing to people,” Armstrong says.

Unfortunately, that’s a race he doesn't stand a chance of winning. 

Watch the video below reporting on Armstrong's admission and specific lies he told in the past. 

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