Lance Armstrong: Cognitive Dissonance as a Hero’s Journey Ends
“I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair.”
The stun of learning that Lance Armstrong will be stripped of his seven titles for doping by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was the first time in more than a decade I can remember crying after hearing a news broadcast. The last time was on the morning of 9/11.
Without a doubt Lance Armstrong was my hero. A genuine, certified hero.
No one in the history of the sport of cycling has won seven titles at the Tour de France, beat cancer, and became a beacon of hope for patients. His legacy was a source of inspiration for millions.
But in spite of his fundraising and being a cancer survivor-turned-spokesperson, he is no longer my hero.
I am grateful for what he has done in raising cancer awareness and funds for cancer research, but now I must readjust my thinking about how he has represented himself. I will need to accept the fact that Lance Armstrong has done a tremendous amount of good in the world and he is a fraud. Because both things now appear to be true.
With his unimaginatively weak statement, the man who almost single-handedly galvanized attention, interest, and fascination in the Tour de France and in raising consciousness (and money) for cancer research and treatment has seemingly admitted to being nothing more than another sports hero impostor.
The man who became famous for never giving up is giving up. If there was any truth behind his innocence, I believe that Lance Armstrong would have fought this — as he did his own cancer — until he was victorious. But his giving up is, in my opinion, as clear an admission of wrongdoing as can be. It also stops the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency from pursuing further investigations — including apparently 10 former teammates waiting in the wings ready to testify against him.
In my opinion, Lance Armstrong is a survivor and a liar. He is an incredibly strong man, and an incredibly weak man. Armstrong is a source of inspiration, and a source of disgrace and embarrassment. He is both a hero and a villain. In short, he has become the modern-day example of cognitive dissonance.
In 1957 Leon Festinger published a theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory has now been a central focus of research in social psychology for over half a century. The theory points out that our cognitive process — how we think — can have a bias, what Festinger called “dissonance reduction.”
In other words, whenever there is conflicting information, we try to find consonance — or balance — in one of three ways: we make one of the factors less important, we add components to our thinking to make greater harmony with our thoughts, or we simply change one of the dissonant aspects.
If you ever had that little talk with yourself about ordering dessert, then you know about dissonance reduction. The conflicting information is that the double fudge chocolate dipped brownie is famously delicious and you are five pounds overweight. The dissonance reduction strategies you might use are: The size of the dessert isn’t large and I don’t have to eat it all; I will work out a little longer tomorrow morning; and my personal favorite; I shouldn’t worry about one little dessert.
Lance Armstrong generates dissonance. He is both a winner and a loser. When Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, became a conscientious objector and refused to go to war, the comedian George Carlin offered the perfect way to cope with such dissonance, saying, “Ali figured it was all right to beat people up, but not to kill them.”
But Armstrong’s clay-feet hero status is more difficult to navigate. The theory of cognitive dissonance would predict that people would strive for dissonance reduction by using these three strategies. They might sound something like this:
“He shouldn’t have to keep defending himself against these charges. He was right to give up;” “It doesn’t matter that they stripped him of his titles because he has already done so much good in the world;” “We don’t need false heroes to raise money for cancer treatment, there are plenty of other good people to do that.”
But the bias in doing so nudges us away from reality. The truth now appears to be that Lance Armstrong is both good and bad; inspiring and despicable; a legend and a fake.
The struggle is in trying not to make this dissonance even out, take it away, or stop it. Instead the work is to try to leave the truth as it is: Lance Armstrong is profoundly, unmistakably human.
Is there any good news in this? Is there any possibility of joy or celebration available here?
If Armstrong is stripped of his titles, they would normally be passed on to the second-place finishers. Customarily I would throw my positive feelings toward them and celebrate their victory. But there is another problem. All of the second and third place finishers in every one of Armstrong’s victories have been identified in doping either through admission or investigation.
But even in this professional cycling mess, I am certain there are fourth- or fifth- or sixth-place winners who are true champions whom we can celebrate.
We need to applaud these genuine heroes when we find them for two reasons. First and foremost because they deserve it; and second, because it will help us cope.
Tomasulo, D. (2012). Lance Armstrong: Cognitive Dissonance as a Hero’s Journey Ends. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 7, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/08/25/lance-armstrong-cognitive-dissonance-as-a-heros-journey-ends/