The Stories He Told Himself: What We Can Learn From Brian Williams About Self-Deception and Lying

Photo by David Shankbone ( via Wikimedia Commons

In February, 2015, reporter Brian Williams found himself under extreme public scrutiny for lying [1]. A respected news anchor for decades [2], Brian claimed that he was riding in an Army aircraft that was shot by a rocket-propelled grenade while reporting on the Iraq war in 2003 [3]. Yet, that was not true. Brian was in Iraq and clearly affected by his experiences there, but was not in the aircraft that was struck [4]. After being criticized for the lie by others who were there, Brian apologized and stated that he “made a mistake” [5]. In fact, Brian seemed dumbfounded about how he made such an error saying, “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another” [6].

Situations in which people blatantly lie—especially involving a famous media figure like Brian Williams—inherently produce questions. How does someone like Brian Williams lie about his own experiences? Did he realize he was lying? Or did he actually believe that he was in the aircraft that was attacked?

Although we cannot know exactly why Brian Williams lied, it is quite possible that Brian’s lies were actually a result of his own self-deception. And if we lie to ourselves, we will lie to others [7].

One of the main reasons we lie to ourselves is that our thoughts construct and reflect our reality. Our experiences and memories are influenced by the way we perceive the world—how we interpret events in our lives, how we recount our past, how we remember (or misremember) the truth. In essence, our reality is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves in our own minds.

The problem with this reality is that, most of the time, we do not check our own thoughts for accuracy. For most of us think that our thoughts are true—that they accurately reflect reality. Yet, our thoughts don’t need to be true for us to think them. They don’t need to be based in fact. They don’t need data to support their accuracy. They can be completely false; yet, we will think they are accurate. We think that we are right!

The result is that we can create a reality in our own minds about what is true that is completely false. And, if you repeatedly tell yourself the same stories—true or false—you will start to believe them. In the words of the infamous Adolf Hitler, “If you tell a lie and you tell it often enough, it will be believed.” You (and those around you) will believe your lies until you are confronted with evidence to the contrary.

The Naked Truth Is This: Our thoughts have a profound affect on us—whether they are true or false. Although we cannot know exactly why Brian Williams lied to the public about his experiences in the Iraq war, it is quite possible that he believed his lies when he told them. And when any of us lie to ourselves, we will lie to others. For we will communicate our lies as if they are fact even when they are fiction.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.

Selected References


Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Exposed to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles from an early age, Dr. Cortney was intrigued by the ways cultural and environmental conditions affected the psychological well-being of individuals, groups, and even whole societies.


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