Editor's note: This article is part of “The Ten Today,” a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the ninth commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
As Lance Armstrong stood on the podium after winning his seventh Tour de France title in 2005, he was exultant.
His yellow jersey and hat — trademarks of a Tour de France champion — glinted in the July sun, and his posture exuded confidence, if not a little defiance. He took the race announcer’s microphone, and, like an imperious teacher lecturing a student, he addressed the crowd.
“For you people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I’m sorry for you,” he said. “I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. … You should stand around and believe. You should believe in these athletes. … There are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it. So, um, vive le Tour. Forever.”
When Armstrong said, "You should believe in these athletes," he might well have been talking about himself. For years, he vehemently denied rumors that he'd cheated to win. By the time the U.S. Anti-doping Agency filed an official report in 2012 that said the cyclist used performance-enhancing drugs, Armstrong had already been lying to the world for more than a decade saying he was clean.
Now Armstrong, who admitted a little over a year ago to doping over the course of his career, has sold several of his homes, leveraged his assets and lost some $75 million in support from his sponsors, all while battling a host of legal contests and having his Tour de France titles and Olympic medal stripped.
He is hardly the first high-profile, wealthy or influential person caught lying, but his story represents an undercurrent that flows all the way down to ordinary Americans and flaunts one of the most basic moral tenets iterated even in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
The act of lying by itself is disruptive and unethical at best, experts say, but when it crosses over to perjury — lying under oath — at its worst, it is far-reaching and destructive in its effect. If left unchecked, experts say, prosecutable lies, cheating and rampant dishonesty from the powerful to the poor have the potential to destroy the social fabric of America — right down to its political and judicial systems.
Dishonesty certainly destroyed Armstrong's record as the greatest cyclist who ever lived.
“Lance Armstrong — he has been ruined,” James Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and lawyer who studied perjury, said recently from his office in New York City. “The truth was embarrassing and damaging, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened as a result of all of this.”
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
When Martha Stewart decided in 2001 to sell her shares in a bio-tech company because of an illicit tip, she was worth billions.
The deal saved her about $45,000, but over the course of three years, through lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission, a trial and conviction, Stewart said, her decision cost about $1 billion in damages to her reputation and her company. She could have admitted her mistake, told the truth, and avoided the scandalous trial that nearly killed her empire and necessitated company-wide layoffs, but to the bitter end, Stewart denied doing anything wrong. In interviews, she portrayed herself as a hapless victim of a ruthless system and deferred responsibility in a letter she wrote the judge before her sentencing case.
“I never intended to harm anyone and I am dreadfully sorry that the perception of my conduct has caused my family, my friends and especially my beloved company so much damage,” Stewart wrote the judge, unrepentant. “My prayers are with you, and my hopes that my life will not be completely destroyed lie entirely in your hands.”
In the end, Stewart went to prison for five months.
One might think the rich and powerful have the least reason to lie and the most to lose from getting caught, but history is replete with examples of politicians, business people, millionaires and sports stars who have committed perjury — and they’re not the only ones guilty of lying. We all do it, experts say.
According to a Reader’s Digest poll in 2004, 93 percent of respondents reported one or more kinds of dishonesty at work or school, and 96 percent reported lying to or committing other dishonest acts toward those close to them. Kids lied to their parents about money, alcohol/drugs, friends, dating, parties and sex, according to the poll. Another scholarly study, “Lying in Everyday Life,” conducted by a group of scholars at the University of Virginia, Texas A&M University and Pfeiffer College, showed adults lied about two times a day.
Although psychologists generally acknowledge most humans lie at some point in their lives, one 2010 study, “The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three Studies of Self-Reported Lies,” conducted by a group of scholars at Michigan State University, found that the majority of lies reported by respondents belonged to a small percentage. According to the study, half of all reported lies are told by 5.3 percent of the population.
Still, as humans, the people around us affect our propensity to lie — so people who want to be more honest would best avoid that 5.3 percent.
“We are all capable of cheating, and we are very adept at telling ourselves stories about why, in doing so, we are not dishonest or immoral,” Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, wrote in his book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone — especially ourselves.”
“Even worse, we are prone to ‘catch’ the cheating bug from other people, and once we start acting dishonestly, we are likely to continue misbehaving that way."
Caught in the act
As a former prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., Doug Godfrey has his fair share of fascinating stories from the courtroom.
But one of his favorites to tell happened decades ago when he was working on a series of cases against defendants who had been caught with illegal drugs. Each of the defendants had been caught with drugs that they just so happened to drop when they were running away from the police. It was a convenient happenstance for the police, who knew their case would be dismissed if they searched their suspects unlawfully.
The judge, noticing the trend, told the courtroom, “I’m in fear for the citizens of Brooklyn, with all of these things falling out of their pants,” says Godfrey, who is now a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
The implication was that police officers were being dishonest, busting people for drugs and searching them without a warrant. When they found drugs in this way, they claimed the narcotics happened to fall on the ground as their suspects ran away — a false justification of their actions after the fact. Law enforcement officials lie under oath to suit their needs often enough that a group of officers in New York City coined a slang word for it: "testilying."
Still, despite his quip, the judge did nothing to quell the ironic dishonesty.
Although physical evidence, including DNA testing and visual proof, are important to solving criminal cases, America’s justice system relies on people telling the truth in order to function. Lying under oath, on tax forms or on financial statements — such as in divorce proceedings — are all forms of perjury, which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
“It’s the best we can do with a system that is going to be fair and not give too much power to the government and not let, on the other side, anarchy reign,” said University of Nevada Las Vegas and William S. Boyd School of Law professor Chris Blakesley, who has studied international law and compared the United States’ approach to perjury with other countries. “The system could not function without all of us taking seriously our need to tell the truth. I think that is the essence of the system here.”
The moral imperative to tell the truth is hardly a new concept. People were punished for lying even in ancient civilizations. In colonial America, where strict enforcement of a multitude of laws was carried over from England's modus operandi, people convicted of lying were sometimes branded on their faces and publicly flogged.
Today, in some European countries, such as France, Italy and Hungary, defendants are not put under oath because it is assumed that they will lie, Blakesley says. In the United States, defendants are punished if they lie on the stand, falsify documents, or even omit pertinent information — but the charges are hard to prosecute, says Steven Duke, a professor at Yale Law School who teaches a course on criminal procedure.
To successfully prosecute a perjury case, a prosecutor must prove the defendant willingly lied under oath about an objective fact and prove that the factual truth was different from their alleged lies under oath, Duke says. Defendants can also fall back on the claim that they had a memory lapse, he says, which is very difficult to prove otherwise in a court setting. Limitations on prosecuting perjury also make it a difficult subject to study; there is little data, but some experts say lying under oath is nothing less than an epidemic that must be quelled.
For every perjury that is prosecuted in America, Duke says, hundreds or thousands of the crimes — including "testilying" — go unpunished because of the difficult nature of the cases.
“Perjury is commonplace in America,” Duke says. “I don’t know if that was as true a century ago as it is now. … I imagine that a century ago, more people believed that God punished perjury than now, when it appears that almost no one believes that.”
Changing the tide
Even if there is a declining belief in God in America, that’s not the only reason people lie under oath, experts say. And in fact, placing a hand on the Bible — which can be a reminder to some of their moral creed — and taking an oath does have some positive effect on truth-telling.
“On the face of it, the idea that any reminder can decrease dishonesty seems strange — after all, don’t people know that it is wrong to be dishonest even without reminders?” psychologist Dan Ariely wrote with Nina Mazar and On Amir in their study “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance.”
“However, from the self-concept maintenance perspective, the question is not whether a person knows it’s wrong to behave dishonestly, but whether she thinks of these standards and compares her behavior to them in a moment of temptation.”
There are several contributing factors to the perceived rise in examples of perjury, experts say. For one thing, prosecutors don’t often prosecute people for perjury because it is difficult and there are limited resources to fight the cases effectively. For another thing, thanks to high-profile cases — involving such people as former President Bill Clinton, famed baseball player Barry Bonds and even Martha Stewart — where the punishment for lying appeared to be minimal, others feel safer in flaunting the law without serious repercussions.
When politicians lie and get away with it, it erodes America’s faith in the political system, says James Stewart, who wrote “Tangled Webs — How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff.” You can’t have a legal system without people giving truthful evidence, Stewart said, and the ripple effects of dishonesty reach all the way to the public trust, faith in democracy and the function of capital markets and investments. When a president perjures himself while in office, it takes a toll. But more corrosive than that are the countless everyday cases of everyday people giving false testimony, committing tax fraud and being deceitful on financial statements, say, in divorce proceedings.
To move forward, Stewart says, each individual should begin with themselves and reaffirm their commitment to being honest. From there, every effort should be made to be a good example and hold children and those around us to the same standard.
For Armstrong and those like him who fear what will happen if they admit their guilt and stop their deceit, Stewart has this advice: tell the truth.
“Once you’ve told a lie, you’re stuck with it,” Stewart says. “It’s on your conscience forever.”