To be Olympic-caliber swimmers, no matter how great their natural talent, young men and women must hit the pool early in the morning day after day, week after week, and month after month for years, swimming miles and miles and miles in the process. The character that it takes to make these sacrifices and to maintain this discipline is enormous. And yet, it is nothing compared to the simple task of admitting a mistake.
U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte, one of the greatest swimmers in Olympic history, suffered one of the most ignominious individual ethical debacles of the 21st century due to an inability to admit a mistake. Had Lochte come clean right away–admitting that he had gotten drunk and committed minor vandalism while in an intoxicated state and asking for forgiveness–he would probably be $5-$10 million richer in a few years than he will be now.
Unfortunately for Lochte, he could not muster the character to own up to his mistake. Rather, he invented an easily and quickly disproved cover story involving being robbed at gunpoint by people wearing police uniforms. Therefore, he has now lost all his sponsorships from companies like Speedo and Ralph Lauren. In withdrawing its sponsorship from Lochte, Speedo stated that it could “not condone the behavior that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for.”
Why did Lochte lie? One obvious reason is that he was likely trying to avoid embarrassment. Human beings have evolved to continuously judge each other’s actions, including on moral dimensions. When we err, as Lochte did when he drunkenly vandalized the service station restroom, we face the blaming emotions of others (scorn, disgust, anger). We also often suffer the self-directed emotions of guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. I imagine that Lochte felt the emotion of guilt after his drunken acts, but hoping to avoid the additional unpleasant emotions of embarrassment and humiliation, he concocted his lie. These emotions combine to form a powerful force that helps cause most of us to follow society’s moral standards most of the time. But their influence can be perverting in circumstances such as those in which Mr. Lochte found himself.
Lochte was also potentially motivated by the phenomenon of loss aversion, a psychological phenomenon that causes people to hate losses more than they enjoy gains (watch our video on Loss Aversion for more on that). “Both gains and losses are closely connected to emotions of pleasure and pain.” (Zamir). Loss aversion often causes people to be risk-seeking in behavior aimed at avoiding losses. Because he likely feared losing sponsors, Lochte “overexaggerated” (to use his own term). Unfortunately for him, in a world of cell phone cameras and ubiquitous CCTV cameras, it is increasingly difficult to get away with both the original wrong and the false cover-up.
It is commonplace in politics, and in life in general, that the cover-up often proves more damaging than the initial wrong. It proved to be so for Martha Stewart and Frank Quattrone back in the Enron-era scandals. Neither was convicted of their original wrongs (insider trading and securities fraud, respectively). Rather, both were convicted of their cover-ups (though Quattrone’s conviction was overturned on a technicality). The conviction that put the long-respected accounting firm Arthur Andersen out of business was, similarly, for the cover-up (shredding two tons of documents) rather than for the original wrong (monumentally inept auditing).
One of the hardest things to do in this world is to own one’s mistakes. I know that it is for me. But we must try to muster the character to do so. If we do not, things will likely get worse for us as they did for poor Mr. Lochte.
Jessie S. Cameron & Dale T. Miller, “Ethical Standards in Gain Versus Loss Frames,” in Psychological Perspectives on Ethical Behavior and Decision Making (David De Cremer, ed. 2009).
Taylor Kubota, “The Science Behind Why Celebrities Like Ryan Lochte Tell Fibs,” Live Science, Aug. 22, 2106, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lochtes-lies-how-science-explains-fibbers_us_57bb165fe4b00d9c3a18bc8a.
Katie Rogers, “Ryan Lochte Dropped by Speedo USA and Other Retailers,” New York Times, Aug. 22, 2016.
Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (2015).
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012).
Eyal Zamir, Law’s Loss Aversion, in The Oxford Handbook of Behavioral Economics and the Law (Eyal Zamir & Doron Teichman, eds. 2014).