Big Lies, Big Consequences

(Photo By David Bartolomi/courtes - Photo By David Bartolomi/courtes)
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sometimes big lies are justified. During a January 1980 press conference, Jimmy Carter said he wouldn't consider taking military action to recapture the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. At that very moment, the military was preparing for just such action. In that case, and despite the outcome, deceit was necessary to preserve the integrity of the mission. In wartime, truth is so precious that she must often be attended by a bodyguard of lies, as Winston Churchill reportedly said.

But there are plenty of instances of high-profile figures engaging in wrongful deceit. Here are five cases of marquee lying. Note: We are not equating the gravity or consequences of these disparate acts, but simply looking at famous lies.

Hitler's Pledge

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the German chancellor in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to quell impending war. Adolf Hitler assured Chamberlain that war would be avoided if Czechoslovakia would negotiate a redrawing of its borders. Chamberlain was satisfied and told Parliament that Hitler "means what he says." Needless to say, Hitler didn't.

Why it's significant: This is, unequivocally, one of mankind's most devastating deceptions. It enabled the start of World War II and led to the death of millions. Hitler is an example of a natural performer, Paul Ekman writes in his book "Telling Lies." He was able to engage in deceit without the yoke of remorse.

"The lie [to Chamberlain] was likely to succeed because no strong emotions had to be concealed," Ekman writes. "Hitler certainly would not have felt guilt, an emotion that is doubly problematic for the liar."

The Watergate Scandal

High-ranking officials in the Nixon administration carried out a buffet of crimes (including fraud, wiretapping and the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex). Richard Nixon denied knowing anything about it. Taped conversations revealed that Nixon was not only aware of the criminal plans but also had made key decisions about their implementation.

Why it's significant: Simply put, Watergate pitted citizens against their government. "It just sent a shudder through the whole society," says psychology professor Bella DePaulo, who is working on a book tentatively titled "How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Liars." "It really did seem to create a less-trusting mind-set. . . .

"So now we have lots of serious deception happening [in government] and, even though they do get lots of attention, there isn't quite that Watergate reaction -- in that we've already had our most basic trust shattered, and so we know now that this can happen."

Clinton's Denial

A sexual indiscretion was exacerbated by a perjury charge and by the fact that the man involved was the president. You probably still remember Clinton's lie verbatim: "I did not. Have. Sexual. Relations. With that woman," he told the American people.

Why it's significant: "It wasn't Clinton's lie that was so important," psychology professor Robert Feldman says. "It was the fact that he lied and he got away with it. Yes, immediately he had great difficulty and got into a lot of trouble, but ultimately the message to society is you can be deceptive in a very big and public way and, in the long run, there's very little consequence. Bill Clinton is probably the most popular politician today."

Writers Gone Wild

The list of American journalists who have fabricated some of their work and got caught doing it is extensive: Janet Cooke at this newspaper, Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, Jack Kelley at USA Today. Each case involved the deception of editors and readers and the propagation of stories that had little or no basis in fact.

Why they're significant: Each instance tarnished reputations and alienated readers. Each also illustrates how people lie to pursue some kind of reward -- be it fame or respect or money -- and how lies can snowball out of control. The deeper you get, the harder it becomes to admit to the accumulating lies, DePaulo says, especially when people defend you at the outset.

"That makes it all the harder for you to fess up. People are doing what they're supposed to do: being loyal," she says. "But then that very nice, socially positive process gets the liar even deeper into the lie."

Fraudulence at Enron

The energy firm's initial success was built on a medley of accounting malpractices -- concealing debts and grossly overestimating profits, for example -- all of which came to a head in 2001.

Why it's significant: There are two types of liars, DePaulo says: the kind who back into a lie and find themselves lying to keep their heads above water, and the liars who act deliberately and without moral qualms.

The chiefs at Enron are examples of the latter, she says. "They really did not care they were [harming] other people. For some of them, it was sport, like we heard from the tapes that were released," DePaulo says, referring to recordings of employees scheming about market-gaming tactics. "It really was so inbred. They were competing with each other: who's going to get the most attention and money. It was so disconnected from any moral ground."

-- Dan Zak

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