Ryan Lochte’s Lying: A Developmental Perspective

Headlines from the Washington Post: “Police Discredit Ryan Lochte’s Robbery Story, Say Swimmers Owe Rio an Apology”

Why do people lie?

Many Americans were riveted to the Rio Olympics these last two weeks as we marveled at the amazing accomplishments of athletes from all over the world and especially from the USA. However, a small group of US swimmers demonstrated behaviors, compounded by lying, which left us wondering why…why did they do and say what they did?

And for some, it is a source of embarrassment and anger.

The article goes on to say that Brazilian authorities have conclusively proven that Ryan Lochte and several other U.S. swimmers fabricated their story about being robbed at a gas station on Aug. 14.

It can be hard to understand how these young men thought they would get away with their lies and even why they lied in the first place.

I think some of the answer can be found in an understanding of moral development that provides more of an explanation than an excuse.

Moral development stages

Early in the previous century, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, American philosopher John Dewey, and James Mark Baldwin observed that people develop morally in a progressive and predictable fashion. They created charts with six stages through which children and adolescents move.

Later Lawrence Kohlberg repeated that research and made the conclusions somewhat easier to understand. Because Kohlberg’s research was done primarily with young boys, Carol Gilligan did some of her own research to see if there were differences in girls’ moral development, and she created her own slightly different charts. One of the primary differences was in a greater awareness on the part of girls of relational dynamics and responsibilities seen at a younger age.

Many authors describe the stages of moral development researchers have provided, including Thomas Lickona in his book, Raising Good Children. In it he shares the following chart and devotes most of his book to explaining each stage.

The Stages of Moral Reasoning*
(Ages indicate reasonable developmental expectations for a child of normal intelligence growing up in a supportive moral environment.)

*Stages 1 through 5 are adapted from Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning as described in Kohlberg (1975, 1978, 1981); Stage 0 is adapted from William Damon (1977) and Robert Selman (1980).

About this chart 

While there are specific ages listed on this chart, children do not necessarily achieve these levels by these ages and sometimes there are adults who never get to a place of being responsible to the system or having a principled conscience. The conclusion from all of this research indicates that children and young adults behave differently in terms of moral integrity based on their age and developmental maturity.

It might be helpful to appreciate that Ryan Lochte and his colleagues, who acknowledge being drunk at the time of the incident, were probably at a much lower level of moral reasoning, possibly at Stage 2 or Stage 3.

By understanding that children, adolescents, and young adults may still be moving through their moral development (and therefore can behave in ways that are viewed as immoral) may be need to be appreciated for their need to explore morality rather than be attacked, shamed and punished. Consequences may be helpful if they promote moral growth.

When parents and others observe young people behaving in ways that are considered “immoral,” perhaps it would be fairer to stop and consider how behaviors may be resting more on a stage lower than that of having a principled conscience and that each child, adolescent or young person needs opportunities and guidance for moving through each of these stages of moral development. After all, each of us had to move through these moral stages and probably can remember times when we aren’t real proud of what we said or did.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you think of something you said or did in your childhood, adolescence or young adulthood that you would now consider to be immoral? Did you feel ashamed rather than understanding that you needed time and opportunities to move through moral stages? [I know, probably no young person is aware of where he or she is on these moral stages and if given the information  might not recognize what stage he or she is on—you don’t know what it feels like to have a principled conscience until you have a principled conscience!]
  2. Are there adults in your life who you now recognize probably have not moved past some of the earlier stages?
  3. If you have a sense of the moral stages on which your children now are, what are some ways you might help promote their growth, focusing on being supportive rather than shaming or punitive?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/brazil-stops-two-us-olympic-swimmers-from-leaving-country-over-robbery-case/2016/08/18/5bfdee66-6540-11e6-96c0-37533479f3f5_story.html

Chart Source: http://www.character-education.info/articles/stages_of_moral_development.htm