Lochte's Lies: How Science Explains Fibbers

Ryan Lochte
(Image credit: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com)

Nearly a week after Ryan Lochte and three other U.S. swimmers claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it seems the men are admitting their story seriously bent the truth.

"I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning," a statement posted on Lochte's Instagram page said. The 12-time Olympic medalist also said he regretted taking focus away from those still competing in the Olympics, and thanked Brazil for hosting.

In the swimmers' original version of events, Lochte and three fellow swimmers said their taxi was pulled over and they were robbed at gunpoint early in the morning of Aug. 14. Local police, however, questioned whether any robbery actually took place. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

Upon further investigation, including review of surveillance video, the police said the swimmers were intoxicated and had left their taxi to use the bathroom at a gas station. There was no available bathroom, and, according to this version of events, at least one of the swimmers urinated outside and vandalized the business. In reaction to this, an armed security guard demanded money from the men, about $50, news outlets reported.

As a result of the discrepancies, two of Lochte's fellow swimmers were pulled from their flights back to the U.S. for further questioning, and a third has agreed to pay about $11,000 to a Brazilian charity in exchange for permission to leave the country. A Brazilian judge also issued a warrant for Lochte, but the swimmer had already left Brazil.

Assuming the police account of what happened is closer to the truth, the incident could have been embarrassing for the swimmers, but would have probably blown over. So why did they did lie in the first place?

"The number one reason people lie, still, is to avoid punishment and embarrassment," said William Earnest, assistant professor of communication at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, and co-author of the book "Lying and Deception in Human Interaction" (Pearson, 2007).

"That starts when we're kids, [and] it's true when we're adults," Earnest told Live Science. Earnest hypothesized that the swimmers were trying to avoid embarrassment. He added that he wouldn't be surprised if it comes out that one of men began the lie, and the others joined in afterward to be of help.

The fact that these men are teammates could play a role in their acting together to cover up  embarrassment, Earnest said. "When a group gets together, under their own logic, then anything is possible," Earnest said. For example, if each man saw their story as one that would benefit the whole group, rather than only himself, they may have been bending the truth for some version of helping the greater good. [Doping at the Games: Why the Olympics Banned These Drugs]

People may also lie to protect each other, or protect against negative perceptions of their group, research shows. One study, published in the journal Proceeding of the Royal Society B in 2014, found that unselfish lies can bring people together. The researchers used a complex mathematical model to show that individuals who lie for personal gain see their social networks fall apart over time, whereas people who tell lies for the good of their relationships with others tend to form stronger links within their social networks.

It's also possible that these men were more likely to lie because they are Olympians — and one among them is one of the most famous Olympians this year. "At that level of celebrity, there's an immunity or an insulation from reality," Earnest said. "You feel like you're operating at a different sphere, where the rules aren't necessarily the same for you."

Although not quite the same as being a famous athlete, being wealthy may have a similar effect. Past research has suggested that wealthier people are more likely to lie and cheat than those with fewer resources. The reasons for this may include that wealthier people's resources allow them to take greater risks, the researchers in that study said.

Although it remains unclear what really happened, Earnest said he suspects avoidance of embarrassment is the most likely origin of the swimmers' orginial statements. And because Rio has a reputation for muggings and because other Olympians had reporting such crimes, it may have seemed to the athletes like it was a small lie, he said.

The men were also under the influence of alcohol, which, while sometimes a truth serum, can also lead to inaccurate recall and act as a mechanism that promotes lying, Earnest said.

It may seem baffling that these Olympic swimmers would concoct this lie in the first place. But the incident shows that everyone is susceptible to using bad judgment, he said. "Under the right circumstances, you bet, every single one of us will lie to cover our asses," Earnest said.

Original article on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor