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Anthony Weiner, Ryan Braun and a summer of lies

By Z. Byron Wolf, CNN
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu July 25, 2013
  • New York Democrat Anthony Weiner is the lastest politician to admit to missteps in his personal life
  • Eliot Spitzer in a recent interview: "I think we all know that politicians dissemble . . ."
  • Expert: "Society socializes us to be deceptive and to tell people the kinds of things they want to hear"
  • "If you elect these guys and you expect them to be honest, you're deluding yourself," expert added

Washington (CNN) -- Psst! Here's a truth: Politicians lie. They lie about their personal lives like Anthony Weiner did. And Eliot Spitzer. And Mark Sanford. And Bill Clinton. And John Edwards. Shall we go on?

They lie about policy too. America's top spy, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had to issue a statement explaining why he testified before Congress that the U.S. government is not gathering dossiers on American citizens when it's now clear that the U.S. government is gathering all their Internet and phone data.

They lie to supporters. When some Republicans pledge to repeal Obamacare, it might be what the voters back home want to hear. But the lawmakers know it's not going to happen.

Boehner says House will keep trying to stop Obamacare

They change their policies between fundraising, campaigning, and governing.

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President Barack Obama opposed a mandate that people get health insurance when he ran for president. But that didn't stop him from signing one into law. Was that a lie?

Clapper, America's top spy, found himself admitting to giving "erroneous" information to Congress.

He had testified at a Senate committee that the government was not collecting vast amounts of data from most Americans.

"No sir," Clapper said.

After Edward Snowden leaked NSA secrets, Clapper was forced to write a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee and apologize.

"I have thought long and hard to recreate what went through my mind at the time," he said, adding that, "My response was clearly erroneous -- for which I apologize," Clapper said.

So maybe Eliot Spitzer told the truth about lying when he said on NBC recently, explaining why it's OK for him to run for office again after his 2011 prostitution scandal, "I think we all know that politicians dissemble all the time about negotiations, on substantive issues and probably on personal issues as well."

A lot of baseball players have been in the news recently for lying, too. In New York, already coming to grips with the two cads running for citywide office, Alex Rodriguez's relationship with the truth is about as tenuous as his relationship with the Yankees. He had said he didn't take performance enhancing drugs (PEDs is what they're calling them these days). But he tested positive.

The Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun got suspended by Major League Baseball for the rest of the season. He's now admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs.

That means he lied when he stood in front of TV cameras in 2012 and said, "I'd bet my life" PEDs didn't enter his body. They did. And Braun's life isn't over. He'll be eligible to play again next year.

Let's be clear, just about everyone lies, according to the experts. And a little lying is OK.

Opinion: Will 'sexting' city give Weiner a pass?

"The ones who never lie are probably the people we don't want to be around very much," said Robert Feldman, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "They tell us we're putting on weight or don't look very good that day."

"Society socializes us to be deceptive and to tell people the kinds of things they want to hear," he said, adding that most people get away with most of their little lies.

But little lies can beget big lies. And when someone gets away with lying enough and they can justify it to themselves, that's when you end up with bald-faced lies like Edwards saying the love child wasn't his. It was. Or Braun swearing on his life that he hadn't taken the drugs. He had.

"So most of the time we get away with our lies," said Feldman. "We're not questioned and it's fairly easy to be deceptive. A lot of what we see from people who come out with these egregious kinds of lies is they have experience with getting away with being deceptive so they don't think about the consequences."

Dr. Shaul Shalvi, a psychology professor at Ben Gurion University in Israel, has studied what entices people to lie. In one experiment, participants were given a dollar each time they hit a number on a die. He found they were more likely to lie the more chances they got.

"It is easier to shuffle the facts than to invent new facts," he said.

Why we act on stupid impulses

Perhaps Lance Armstrong justified lying about his own long-term use of performance-enhancing drugs because he was feeding his own inspirational narrative as a cancer survivor, Shalvi said. Of course, Armstrong was also enriching himself.

Shalvi didn't want to offer an opinion on Weiner or Braun, but Feldman said voters should beware.

"In one sense, society seems to be encouraging people to lie. And then they do this calculus that it's not going to be that bad," he said, referring to Bill Clinton, who weathered his lie about having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky and today is a respected elder statesman.

"If you elect these guys and you expect them to be honest, you're deluding yourself because they have a history of deception," said Feldman. "The best predictor of future behavior is what they've done in the past. If Anthony Weiner wins this election, the message is that you can do virtually anything and get away with it, multiple times."

Read more: Has the road to political redemption gotten shorter?

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