Deception lessons from Lance Armstrong’s “one big lie”
When Lance Armstrong finally gave up the fight and admitted to cheating by doping, he said, “I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times”.
That’s a quote I found in this article, which also lists a number of his doping denials over the years.
And those denials are, as Lance says, lies. So let’s have a look at them to see which markers of deception are there in his words.
No one with integrity could look at one of these quotes in isolation and say emphatically, “he’s lying!” We’re looking for repeated markers before we draw conclusions. However, it’s interesting to see how many indicators of deception are present in these denials.
Let’s have a look
July 1999: "I have been on my deathbed, and I'm not stupid. I can emphatically say I am not on drugs."
The first thing I spot is the persuasive use of “emphatically”. Persuasive words don’t add anything to the meaning of the sentence, they only affect the severity. These words are not needed to help us understand what’s being said, they’re used to persuade us how much it’s meant. Liars will often use persuasive words in an attempt to show us that they don’t just mean it, they REALLY mean it.
The first words about the “deathbed” and not being “stupid” play a similar role. They sound impressive, but they don’t prove anything. Many people who’ve been close to death do unhealthy things, plenty of smart people do stupid things.
Also, “I’m not stupid” is a statement in the negative. We should pay attention when people tell us what they’re not, rather than what they are.
Finally, there’s a possibility of a personal definition at play. Generally, we hate telling lies, so we’ll use some version of the truth, no matter how convoluted it is. Perhaps Lance, in his head, considered his doping to be “taking what everyone else is” and thought of taking drugs as being on recreational drugs. He could also know he’s not an addict, and would describe an addict as someone “on drugs”. Therefore, he says, “I am not on drugs” and it is true to him, although he’s aware that many others would take a different meaning.
That’s a lot for one short quote.
Dec 2000: "We are completely innocent. We run a very clean and professional team that has been singled out due to our success … Before this ordeal I had never heard of [the performance-enhancing drug Actovegin]."
Similar to the first quote, the use of “completely” and “very” is persuasive. Take those words out and the meaning doesn’t change.
There’s further poor logic. We’ve all ingested things we’ve never heard of before and never will.
Finally, there’s no direct denial of doping here. As I’ve said, we try to avoid lying, and why lie when we can throw out a fairly meaningless word salad?
Jan 2001: "The simple truth is that we outwork everyone. But when you perform at a higher level in a race, you get questions about doping."
Again, there is no direct denial of anything dodgy here. This quote is an attempt to move to safer ground. That is, rather than deal with the allegations, Lance moves to subjects he’s more comfortable speaking about, namely his training, his performance and how this leads to accusations.
Finally, on this one, “the simple truth” is similar in use to “honestly” and “to tell the truth”. Deceptive types often use these as they feel it makes them look more honest and truthful.
Jan 2004: "I have never had a single positive doping test, and I do not take performance-enhancing drugs."
There’s false logic here. I’ve never been caught for speeding. Does that prove I’ve never once broken the speed limit?
“I do not take performance-enhancing drugs” is actually quite convincing among these quotes. It’s weakened slightly by the uncontracted “do not” rather than “don’t”, apart from that, it’s the best undetectable lie we’ve seen so far.
July 2004: "We're sick and tired of these allegations and we're going to do everything we can to fight them. They're absolutely untrue."
Here it is: “absolutely”, one of the biggest red flags in deceptive language. Not every use of “absolutely” means you’re hearing a lie, but so many lies involve the use of “absolutely” somewhere. It’s a super persuader, and I make no apologies for drilling down into someone’s statement if they use the word “absolutely”.
Aug 2005: "I have never doped. I can say it again, but I've said it for seven years."
This quote features the word “never” which turns up so often in deception. “Never” sounds very big and solid, but it’s use is often very qualified.
Think of the person who smokes once a month with a drink. They’d be quite comfortable saying they’d “never smoked”. Especially if they think of smoking as being addicted to 20 a day.
As with “absolutely”, “never” doesn’t prove you’re being lied to, but it’s a big red flag to keep an eye on.
This quote also has a concept that is really useful to spot liars. They love repeating their lies. That could be because they think if they say it lots, we’ll come to believe it’s true. Or it could be that, as it’s crucial that we hear the lie, they say it a few times to make sure we catch it.
As Lance said in his confession, “I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times”. The repetition was very important to the lie. You can see from the words that Lance believes the more times he repeats it, the truer it must seem.
As a side note, keep an eye on the phrase “as I said”. Why does the person saying that feel the need to point out they’ve said this before?
Aug 2005: "Why would I enter into a sport and then dope myself up and risk my life again? That's crazy. I would never do that. No way."
This is a classic technique of deception, ask a question. Turn the heat off yourself and get the other person to do the thinking.
We have the use of “never” again and another potential personal definition. If Lance is convinced his techniques are safe and pose no threat to life, he can say all this and, in his head at least, be telling the truth.
Nov 2005: "How many times do I have to say it? … Well, it can't be any clearer than 'I've never taken drugs.'"
I’m sure you can do this yourself by now. A question. The repetition of the lie.
July 2010: "As long as I live, I will deny it. There was absolutely no way I forced people, encouraged people, told people, helped people, facilitated. Absolutely not. One hundred percent."
We have “absolutely” twice. Red alert. “As long as I live, I will deny it” shows that Lance realises these allegations will never be put to bed as long as he’s alive. It’s leakage, Lance here is acknowledging that there is no way he will ever be able to prove his innocence.
Jan 2011: "If you're trying to hide something, you wouldn't keep getting away with it for 10 years. Nobody is that clever."
We see bad logic here again, but the most noticeable thing is that Lance doesn’t talk about himself in this quote. It’s about “you” not him. “Nobody” is that clever not “I am not that clever”.
As often in these quotes, if you look at the pure meaning of his words, you’ll see his sentences mean something very different from the impression he’d like you to take away from them.
May 2011: "Twenty-plus-year career, 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case."
June 2012: "I have never doped … I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one."
These last two should be a home run for you.
If you want some advanced learning, look at his lack of pronouns around the never failed a test claims.
“Never failed a test” not “I never failed a test”
“Passed more than 500 drugs tests” not “I passed more than 500 drugs tests”
This lack of a pronoun as personal as “I” can indicate a lack of desire to attach yourself to a lie. As you’ve read this, you may think that Lance didn’t fail any drug tests. The truth is more complex. Lance failed a few tests.
Then it all came crumbling down.
Jan 2013: "All the fault and all the blame here falls on me. I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times. I made my decisions. They are my mistakes, and I am sitting here today to acknowledge that and to say I'm sorry for that."
I hope you found that interesting. At this point, I feel compelled to say I’m a fan of Lance’s current work, including his podcasts and his approach to his past misdemeanours. If you spot anything I didn’t or have questions, please let me know in he comments.