Heisman Trophy winner and GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker’s claims of graduating in the top 1 percent of his class at the University of Georgia and being the valedictorian of his high school class are just recent examples of someone in the public eye who has been caught lying about their past.
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution was the first to report on Walker’s academic embellishments in December when it pointed out that his campaign website said he graduated from college — which he didn’t, an acknowledgment he made to the paper at the time.
If it is true that most of us do not condone lying, we might ask why we accept or ignore both public and private statements that we know to be untrue.
But this month, a CNN investigation found that, as early as 2017, Walker repeatedly used the false stories of college and high school achievements in speeches. After reviewing 15 years of local press coverage of Walker’s Johnson County High School and looking through his high school yearbooks, CNN found that the school didn’t name a valedictorian until 1994 (Johnson County Schools declined to comment to CNN on whether a valedictorian was named the year Walker graduated).
Given how easy it is to discover a falsehood these days, one has to wonder why some people repeatedly spin easily disprovable stories about themselves. I asked this question of my colleague Daniel Shaw, author of the book “Traumatic Narcissism and Recovery,” who said that the answer is complex. Of course, this is beyond Walker. I’m certainly not here to speculate why he specifically lied, but because we’ve all lied or experienced being lied to at some point, the moment is an opportunity to take a more in-depth look.
To begin, Shaw said, “sometimes people tell lies because they believe they’re telling the truth. The mind is complicated, and it is possible to know something and not know it at the same time.” But there are other, less benign reasons for lying. Research has found that most people don’t lie, and that when they do, they tell those small, generally harmless untruths that we call “little white lies.” When someone knowingly lies, they often feel shame, guilt and anxiety about what they are doing. In my psychotherapy practice, I have worked with people who lied compulsively to enhance their self-image or to protect themselves from shame and embarrassment, but because of their shame about the behavior, these lies often end up having the opposite effect.
The psychologist Paul Ekman, a specialist in decoding facial expressions and the inspiration for the series “Lie to Me,” writes on his website that “avoiding punishment is the primary motivator” for lying, but that “protecting ourselves or others from harm, maintaining privacy, and avoiding embarrassment” are other common reasons that we lie.
Perhaps most of us don’t lie, however, because of the damage we know that repeatedly telling falsehoods can do. Darlene Lancer, a marriage and family therapist, writes on her Psychology Today blog that lies can destroy personal relationships. She says that they block intimacy, which “is based on trust and authenticity — the ability to be vulnerable or ‘naked,’ not only physically, but also emotionally.” And lies in business or professional interactions can destroy the mutual trust that can secure meaningful future negotiations.
Lies can also destroy self-esteem, when the act of telling them goes against our own moral and ethical values or when we’re caught, and our positive image plummets in the eyes of people whose opinions we care about.
In his book, Shaw writes that “malignant narcissists,” a term used for people who are supremely self-involved, without empathy, controlling and often abusive, do not suffer from such moral, ethical or personal conflicts. They lie to increase their sense of power and invulnerability. In our conversation, Shaw said that a combination of grandiosity and manipulativeness leads this kind of person to “tell lies with abandon, and double down on them when they are exposed as untrue.”
Publicly presented lies are not a new phenomenon, although they appear to be more blatant now than ever. Walker’s appeared in speeches, in interviews, on his campaign site and in his 2008 autobiography.
If it is true that most of us do not condone lying, we might ask why we accept or ignore both public and private statements that we know to be untrue. Perhaps part of the answer lies in a statement from Mallory Blount, communications director for the campaign: “There is not a single voter in Georgia who believes that whether Herschel graduated at the ‘top of his class’ or as Valedictorian 40 years ago has any bearing on his ability to be a great United States Senator.”
Shaw told me, “When you have a quasi-religious faith in your political leader, you believe he or she represents good, and you stand with him or her against what you think is evil.” In other words, he said, you believe that “your team is telling a higher truth. The end justifies the means.”
There is, however, a problem with this position. Michael Slepian, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, studied secret-keeping, which is a close relative to ignoring the truth behind a lie. In an article in Scientific American, he wrote, “Secrecy is associated with lower well-being, worse health, and less satisfying relationships. Research has linked secrecy to increased anxiety, depression, symptoms of poor health, and even the more rapid progression of disease.” From a neurological perspective, ignoring some secrets and lies can lead to a lessened ability to sort out other truths from falsehood, writes Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and lecturer at MIT Sloan, who studies the impact of secrets and lies, in her book “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.”
So why would someone like Walker continue to repeat stories that can clearly be uncovered as falsehoods? Like every other question about the human psyche, the answer to why people lie when they know that they could get caught is complicated. And perhaps it’s time we ask another question: Given that lies can damage relationships, businesses, lives and even countries, wouldn’t it be better for all of us if we imposed greater consequences on people who lie to gain power and prestige, whether or not we agree with their goals?