Olympic American swimmer Ryan Lochte was indicted last week for falsely reporting a crime in Brazil. MATT HAZLETT / GETTY IMAGES
Photo: Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Imag
Photo: Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Imag

Life with Gracie: Ryan Lochte’s lies a symptom of something bigger

Experts tell me people lie all the time for all sorts of reasons. To get attention. To avoid feeling discomfort. To avoid getting into trouble.

No surprise there and if I were a betting woman, I’d venture to say that the ninth commandment — thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor — is broken more often than all the rest put together.

But why lie for seemingly no reason at all and then concoct a tale that is so easy to dismantle?

Experts say a lot of people do it. They say studies show we tell 1.65 lies a day.

“Simply put, people lie to avoid harm coming to themselves or others, or to achieve some good for themselves or others,” explained Virginia Brabender, a psychology professor at Widener University in Chester, Pa. “Although a subgroup of individuals exists who lie merely to lie, they are greatly in the minority.”

Still, I can’t help wondering what Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, who’s now facing charges for lying about being robbed at gunpoint, could’ve been thinking.

I know. I know. Lochte isn’t the first and I doubt he’s the last. Thinking about this, three instances — no, four — immediately come to mind.

Tawana Brawley lied in 1987 about being raped. Football player Manti Te’o told the media in 2012 that his girlfriend died during a car accident. Then we found out the girlfriend didn’t exist and it was all an elaborate hoax. Te’o admitted that he had never met the girlfriend in person, that it was an online relationship, and he maintained he was not a part of the hoax.

Falcon Heene was found hiding in the attic of his home after his siblings reported that he was riding aboard an experimental balloon built by his father, Richard Heene. The 2009 saga, which triggered rescue efforts, turned out to be a publicity stunt for the family.

And closer to home, Jennifer Wilbanks of Duluth sparked a nationwide search in 2005 after saying she was kidnapped. She eventually turned up in Albuquerque, N.M., where she’d gone to avoid marrying fiance John Mason.

Now, here comes Lochte, who after reporting

To explain, April Masini, author of the popular “Ask April” advice column, summoned Freud — a cigar is never just a cigar, and a lie is never just a lie.

She agreed with Brabender and Manhattan psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert: People don’t make things up without a reason.

“If you dig deeper, you’ll see that there is a reason,” Masini said. “It may be for attention (negative as well as positive), relevance, avoidance of discomfort and even trying to cover up for someone else. Sometimes people lie because they think the lie is what is expected of them, and they may have pressure to lie from others.”

And sometimes, she said, they simply don’t want to feel the discomfort of the truth.

In the case of Lochte, Masini said, “he didn’t want to feel responsible or ashamed for things he’d done that were going to be frowned on. Unfortunately, the truth has a way of catching up and the pain avoided comes back exponentially.”

Boy, did Lochte’s lie catch up with him, lightning quick and as loud as thunder. Just days after Lochte and fellow swimmers Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen reported being robbed at gunpoint by civilians posing as police officers, a video camera revealed otherwise.

Sometimes people behave in erratic and unhealthy ways when they’re going through stressful times, Alpert said. Normal, healthy means of coping are thrown out the window, and they may resort to leveraging support through dramatic means.

Wilbanks is a good example of this, he said.

“It’s a way to garner support and even sympathy from others,” Alpert said. “It’s utilitarian and serves a purpose. The former New York City weather reporter Heidi Jones did something similar in 2010 when she claimed to have been raped in Central Park.”

These liars don’t just drop out of the sky; they’re born, little by little, Alpert said. Take little Johnny who lies to avoid getting into trouble, for example.

“Fast-forward 20 years and adult Johnny lies to avoid getting into trouble. The motivation remains the same and the behavior gets reinforced over time,” he said.

Some critics have said Lochte acted out of a sense of entitlement that Americans in disadvantaged countries have, that he feels no compunction on blaming people who are expected to be corrupt or dangerous because he’s more likely to be believed.

Alpert said blaming others to justify a lie is not uncommon.

“It’s how one rationalizes and makes it easier to participate in such a behavior,” he said. “Of course, choosing to lie about people who might not be the most credible people makes it even easier in the court of public law.”

Men, Alpert said, are more likely to lie.

“I help many clients navigate the world of dating apps, where lies are plentiful,” he said. “Men typically add an inch or two to their height, for instance. The lies build themselves up. It’s also a way to exert control over others, a situation, or even themselves if they feel they have no control.”

Women, on the other hand, tend to lie more to their friends.

“They may say an outfit looks great on someone when it really doesn’t,” Alpert said.

Oh, it’s just a little one, you say. But even white lies are lies.

And if you attended Sunday school, that ninth commandment — thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor — is a good one by which we all should live.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X