Ryan Lochte alleged
that he and his teammates were stopped by thieves pretending to be police, held at gunpoint and robbed. Soon after this story broke, however, details began to emerge
that conflicted with this seemingly straightforward (albeit sensational) story. Confronted with inconsistencies, Lochte began to change his story
: The event occurred while he was stopped at a gas station, not while his taxi was driving; the gun was pointed in his direction, not pressed against his forehead.
In fact, it appears likely now that parts of his story were fabricated. Rather than being robbed, the false accusation obscured what police said was the real story. According to police, the swimmers trashed a gas station. Their lost money? Compensation they allegedly paid to the gas station for breaking down a door.
In our research and teaching, we help people notice red flags that reveal when people are lying. Our research has shown that it is possible to recognize deception by noticing specific red flags. As it turns out, Ryan Lochte's story, from the beginning, was replete with them.
Lochte's behavior and story fit a textbook pattern found in many other high-profile, much more serious false accusations. And while the behavior of Lochte and the other swimmers obviously does not rise to the level of these crimes, they do have something important in common.
Susan Smith claimed a black man stole her car and kidnapped her kids; she was later convicted of killing them
. Scott Peterson reported his pregnant wife missing; her body was later found in San Francisco Bay and he was convicted of murder
. Tawana Brawley said the KKK kidnapped her and put dog excrement on her; it turns out she had run away. And Jeffrey MacDonald claimed hippies killed his wife and kids and chanted, "Acid Is groovy, kill the Pigs;" he was later convicted of their murder
What do these other, more serious, cases have in common?
First, they are sensational stories. All lies misdirect attention, but these lies did so by hijacking urban myths and stereotypes. As each of these individuals searched their minds for plausible stories, they conjured available, easy to retrieve stereotypes that were grounded in fear. But here's the first problem: Urban myths and stereotypes are simplistic tropes that rarely match real behavior.
There's a second problem, too. The sensationalism of the story piques curiosity and attracts attention. When it comes to a sensational story, reporters clamor for more information. And each of these stories unraveled under scrutiny.
One of the quickest ways to detect deception is to ask similar questions multiple times or simply ask the person to retell the story. If the story is fabricated, you can expect to find inconsistencies. As Mark Twain put it, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." When we deceive others, however, we have to keep track of both our lie and the truth, and this creates confusion that invariably leads us to tell inconsistent stories. This is especially true when we are asked for elaboration. As Lochte repeated his story, the facts changed until his story no longer credibly fit his original claims.
Here are some of the flags Lochte raised:
Flag 1: Inconsistent statements. Lochte said the taxi was stopped by people pretending to be police, then said he was confronted at a gas station. Lochte said the gun was put to his forehead, but then said the gun was only pointed in his direction.
Flag 2: Unwilling to cooperate: Most victims are eager to tell their story and help find the perpetrator. In contrast, Lochte didn't inform the US Olympic Committee of the robbery "because we were afraid we'd get in trouble."
Flag 3: Eager to exit: When we feel anxious, we are eager to leave the situation. Lochte left the country. Of course, he could have had these travel plans all along. But many Olympic athletes stick around for a few days to enjoy the Olympic spirit.
Flag 4: Inconsistent physical evidence: Video surveillance appeared to show the swimmers with their valuables later that evening.
Flag 5: Inconsistent behavior: Video evidence shows the swimmers relaxed that evening. We should be wary of deception whenever emotions and behavior fail to match the situation.
As a general rule, one flag isn't enough to provide a smoking gun. An entire set of flags, however, typically are. And in Lochte's case, the red flags were waving from the beginning.
One remaining question is why someone like Lochte would lie about something like this. He could simply have kept his mouth shut, or better yet just apologized and explained that his celebration had got a bit out of hand, something even his statement Friday
only goes partway to doing.
Our research offers a potential answer to this puzzle: Power. Lochte is not only a decorated swimmer, but a reality TV star flush with lucrative endorsement deals
. When we feel powerful, we also feel two other things: invincible and invisible. Unfortunately for Lochte, the more powerful you are, the more people pay attention to -- and want to explain -- your behavior.
It's good to be famous and powerful ... until it isn't. Of course, there are many benefits to being powerful, but Lochte's experience shows us how feeling powerful can get us into trouble. Did Ryan Lochte feel a sense of invincibility that led him to concoct a sensational story? We are still learning more about this case. But either way, Lochte has a lot less power today than he did before Rio.