Learning The Hard Truth About Lying

Mar 8, 2015
Originally published on March 8, 2015 12:08 pm

We all lie sometimes. But if you're in the public eye, the lie can take on a life of its own.

NBC's Brian Williams became the victim of his own story last month, exaggerating the danger he faced while reporting in Iraq in 2003. It lead to an on-air mea culpa and a temporary suspension from the anchor desk.

A couple weeks later, another public figure, Robert McDonald, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, told a homeless veteran that he was in the special forces — but he wasn't.

Coming back from that kind of mistake can be harrowing and life-changing.

Marilee Jones knows intimately the damage that one lie can inflict on a life.

Jones was the dean of admissions at MIT, one of the country's most illustrious universities. She worked there for 28 years and was much beloved by students and administrators alike — until a lie that had haunted her for decades came to light.

In 1979, when Jones was in her mid-20s, her husband got a job at MIT, and they were living on campus. She saw a job posting in the admissions office, recruiting women in the sciences.

"Oh, this would be fun," she says she thought. "I thought, 'I'm up for that fight. Let's do it!' "

But there weren't a lot of women working in that office, and to her it felt like a boys club that placed a high value on credentials. So when she put together her resume, she lied about her education.

'I Just Slid It Under The Door'

"At the time I thought, 'In a million years they'd never hire me,' " she says. "So I said I went to one college when, in fact, I went to another college."

MIT said she claimed three degrees that she did not have.

"I just slid that under the door, and honestly, I forgot all about it," she says. "It just got me in the door, and that was good for me, and off I went."

Nobody tried to verify her credentials and she got the job.

People lie for a lot of reasons, and often with good intentions, says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University."

"We understand that some kind of lying is an important social lubricant," Ariely says. "And those things are making the computation of what's right and wrong much more complex."

Add to that, he says, our instinct is to justify lying when it serves our short-term interest.

"We come up with a story about why this is OK," he says. "When we don't have to explain things to other people, our ability to rationalize is very high."

Jones worked her way up through the admissions department. She was well liked and respected, and ultimately, she was promoted to the top job. The woman who lied on her resume all those years ago was now the dean of admissions for MIT.

While she was in this post, Jones had what she describes as a spiritual awakening. She started to think more deeply about the college admissions process and the immense pressure put on young people to get into top schools.

"We're making kids sick," she thought at the time. "Kids are breaking because of what we're doing. We've got to stop it."

She made it her mission help kids see they didn't have to be perfect on paper; they could be themselves and that would be good enough to get them where they wanted to go.

'I Missed My Moral Moment'

At the same time, she began to be honest with herself about that initial lie. She also began having episodes of arrhythmia — irregular heartbeats. Doctors told her it was stress.

"And I thought, 'I know what it is. I know what it is,' " Jones says. " 'Because I've cleaned up all the other pieces, and this is the one I can't clean up.' I had my moral moment, and I missed my moral moment. That was when I actually was applying to the deans' job."

Instead of coming clean, she doubled down to get the job.

"Because several people in my industry actually, in a snarky way, I think, said to me, 'Well, they're never going to hire a woman for that job, Marilee, come on. Seriously?' " she says. "And I thought to myself, 'Oh yeah? I'll show you.' "

It was exactly the kind of rationalization Ariely described.

But, he says, "Once you see that something has gone out of whack, if you recognize it, the right thing to do is to say, 'You know what? Here's the mistake I made'... When people try to hide things can only get worse."

And for Jones, things did. The pressure of that secret, became too much to bear.

"There was a moment where, in my office, I had a direct knowingness that I was going to die, if I didn't clear this," she says. "I had to face it. So I called in a miracle. I actually went to my knees, in my office. I was asking, 'Just give me an opportunity. I don't know how to fix this, but I deeply desire to fix this. And I don't want to die with this on my conscious.' "

The break came in 2007, when MIT administrators were tipped off about possible inconsistencies in her resume. Jones saw that as her chance to come clean.

"I had an opportunity to clear it and I did clear it, and I resigned," she says. "And it was so great, I'm telling you. By the time I got home that day, one hour, my arrhythmias were completely gone ... and they never came back."

Honesty As A Public Good

What came her way instead was a whole lot of public scrutiny. Hard as that was, after the TV cameras went away and the attention subsided, she was forced to ask herself some even harder questions.

"Who am I without my job? Who am I without my name? Because honestly for a few years, I didn't want to speak my name to people," she says.

Ariely says honesty is a public good and that society works when people trust each other.

"But if you live in a society with no trust, everybody suffers," he says. "We really have to understand that erosion in trust is an incredible erosion in society as a whole."

Jones says she owns what she did, but she says it's also important for people to understand she's still the same person at her core — a person who, like most of us, just made a mistake.

She has moved on. She runs her own consulting business now, helping parents and students navigate the college admissions process, which she says is filled with pressure to be perfect.

"I think the whole system is almost set up for kids to lie," she says. "I know I'm going to get hate mail here ... but in fact, I'm still upset about what this culture is doing to kids. And I think, OK, because this has come to me, I've lived through this, I want to be able to go out and plant my little flag and say, 'Look, it's OK to be a human being.' "

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is FOR THE RECORD.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: There are all kinds of lies. There are the big ones connected to crimes, the ones that do real harm to other people. And then there are the smaller ones that seem benign. The ones we tell others to make a story better, to connect with another person or to create a different narrative about ourselves. NBC's Brian Williams became the victim of his own story last month, exaggerating the danger he faced while reporting in Iraq in 2003. It led to a temporary suspension from the anchor desk and an on air mea culpa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN WILLIAMS: I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.

MARTIN: A couple weeks later, another public figure found himself in similar straits. Robert McDonald, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, told a homeless vet that he was in the special forces - but he wasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT MCDONALD: What I was trying to do is find a way to connect with that veteran. And, as I said, I made a misstatement. I apologize for that. I have no excuse for it.

MARTIN: We all lie sometimes. But if you're in the public eye, the lie can take on a life of its own. And coming back from that kind of mistake can be harrowing and life-changing. FOR THE RECORD today, the truth about lying. Today we're going to introduce you to a woman who knows intimately the damage one lie can inflict on a life. Her name is Marilee Jones and she used to be the dean of admissions at MIT, one of the country's most illustrious universities. She worked there for 28 years and was much beloved by students and administrators alike until a lie that had haunted her for decades came to light.

MARILEE JONES: I own what I did. I don't want to blame this on the culture and, oh, everybody was doing this so I did it, too. I own what I did. I did lie on that resume, I did.

MARTIN: But we should back up because this story begins in 1979. Marilee was in her mid-twenties, her husband got a job at MIT, and they were living on campus. She saw a job posting in the admissions office.

JONES: It was just that simple. Oh, this would be fun. I can do this. Because it was - the specialty was to recruit women into science. And I'd studied science, and I thought, yeah, I understood how women were discouraged in the field of science. And, I don't know, there's a little rebel in me. I'm Irish and I have red hair, and I thought, no, I'm up for that fight. Let's do it. Let's go do it. It would be so much fun.

MARTIN: But there weren't a lot of women working in that office, and to her it felt like a boys club that placed a high value on credentials. So when she was putting together her resume she lied about her educational experience. Here's how she describes it.

JONES: I don't remember. The truth is I don't remember very much because it was a long time ago. And so I don't remember actually what I wrote, but I do recall that I knew that the admissions staff were mainly men. At the time, I thought in a million years they'd never hire me. And so I said I went to one college when, in fact, I went to another college.

MARTIN: MIT said she claimed three degrees that she didn't have. But Marilee didn't think twice about changing her resume.

JONES: I just slid that under the door. And honestly, I forgot all about it. It just got me in the door, and that was good for me, and off I went.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Nobody tried to verify her credentials back then and she got the job. At this point, we're going to pause Marilee's story for a moment and bring in another voice.

DAN ARIELY: My name is Dan Ariely. I'm the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

MARTIN: Dan Ariely says there are lots of reasons people lie, and some lies come with good intentions.

ARIELY: We have a very complex relationship with the truth. We teach our kids how to lie socially, and we understand that some kind of lying is an important social lubricant. And those things are making the computation of what's right and wrong much more complex.

MARTIN: Add to that, he says, our instinct to justify lies when it serves our short-term interest.

ARIELY: When we don't have to explain things to other people, our ability to rationalize is very high. So what we do is we come up with the story about why this is OK and we don't check the evidence very good. We're not good fact checkers about our own stories in our own lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Life went on for Marilee Jones. She worked her way up through the admissions department, endearing herself to the students, faculty and staff. She was well-liked and respected in her field. And ultimately, years later, she was promoted to the top job - the woman who lied on her resume all those years ago was now the dean of admissions for MIT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So there she was in this job, dean of admissions, and she had a spiritual awakening. That's how she describes it. And as part of that, she started to think more deeply about the college admissions process and its moral implications, specifically about the immense pressure put on young people to get into top schools, and she thought to herself...

JONES: We're making kids sick. Kids are breaking because of what we're doing. We've got to stop it.

MARTIN: And that's what she did. She tried to make kids see they didn't have to be perfect on paper. They could be themselves and that would be good enough to get them where they wanted to go.

JONES: And it was very, very difficult to get people on board with that. That was the hardest challenge of my whole career.

MARTIN: So all of this, it was precipitated by a spiritual awakening when you started being honest with yourself. At any point did you think back on that initial lie?

JONES: Yes. About two years before I resigned from MIT, I was having constant arrhythmias - irregular heartbeats. So of course I saw doctors, you know. What's going on? It must be stress. Nothing's wrong with your heart. And I thought I know what it is. I know what it is because I've cleaned up all the other pieces and this is the one I can't clean up. And I had my moral moment, and I missed my moral moment. That was when I actually was applying for the deans' job.

MARTIN: That was a moment you felt like you could have come clean?

JONES: I should have stepped up. Yeah, I could have had. I had the opportunity to step up and make that happen. Several people in my industry actually, in a snarky way, I think, said to me, well, they're never going to hire a woman for that job, Marilee, come on. Seriously? They're never going to hire a woman. And I thought to myself, oh, yeah? (Laughter). I'll show you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is an example of just the kind of rationalization Dan Ariely is talking about. We tell ourselves new stories to justify a lie that may have happened long ago. But he says...

ARIELY: Once you see that something has gone out of whack, if you recognize it, the right to do is to say, you know what? Here's the mistake I made. Come up with it as soon as possible, and get it over soon as possible. When people try to hide things can only get worse.

MARTIN: And for Marilee, they did. The pressure of that secret, that lie, became too much for her to bear.

JONES: There was a moment where, in my office, I had a knowingness that I was going to die if I didn't clear this. And I thought woah, woah, woah, wait, wait. There was no more obfuscating, you know? There was no more trying to run to get out from under it. I had to face it. So I called in a miracle. You know, I actually went to my knees in my office. I was asking just give me an opportunity. I don't know how to fix this, but I deeply desire to fix this. And I don't want to die with this on my conscious, I don't.

MARTIN: The break came in 2007, when MIT administrators were tipped off about possible inconsistencies in Marilee Jones's resume. She saw that as a chance to tell the truth.

JONES: I had an opportunity to clear it and I did clear it, and I resigned. And it was so great, I'm telling you. By the time I got home that day, one hour, my arrhythmias were completely gone, Rachel. They were gone. And they never came back.

MARTIN: What came her way instead was a whole lot of public scrutiny.

JONES: This was on a Monday when I resigned. And it was Thursday they were going to hold a press conference.

MARTIN: She had a few days to collect her wits, get her things together, and leave.

JONES: The truth is, I swear to God, I left town like an hour before I think it was Inside Edition showed up at my house. I'm like what? Are you serious? Oh, my God, I've become a scandal.

MARTIN: After the TV cameras went away and the attention finally subsided, Marilee was forced to start asking herself some difficult questions.

JONES: Who am I without my job? Who am I without my name? Because honestly for a few years I didn't want to speak my name to people.

MARTIN: A couple years later, some national media outlets did stories about Marilee Jones; a where is she now kind of thing. And her phone started to ring, old contacts got back in touch with speaking invitations, seven of them at different schools. But she quickly realized her reputation was still shot.

JONES: Within a week, all seven called me back and said, oh, Marilee, sorry, we have to cancel you, superintendent won't let you come, parents are complaining, sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Dan Ariely says so much of our life is lived online now. It's easier than ever to tell a little lie on a dating profile, maybe another on a professional networking site. But he says the real problem is when lying starts to be overlooked.

ARIELY: Honesty is what we call a public good. So if you live in a society where everybody trusts each other, life is really good. But if you live in a society with no trust, everybody suffers. We really have to understand that erosion in trust is an incredible erosion in society as a whole.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Marilee Jones takes responsibility for what she did, that lie she told. But she says it's important for people to understand she's still the same person at her core - a person who, like most of us, just made a mistake. She has moved on. She runs her own consulting business now, helping parents and students navigate the college admissions process, a process she says is filled with pressure to be perfect.

JONES: I think the whole system is almost set up for kids to lie. This is why I'm willing to speak today. Because I thought about it. Do I want to put myself out there again? I know I'm going to get hate mail here. (Laughter). There's going to be repercussions. But in fact, I'm still upset about what this culture is doing to kids. And I think, OK, because this has come to me, I've lived through this, I want to be able to go out and plant my little flag and say, look, it's OK to be a human being.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That was Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT. We also heard from Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.