A public figure rides in the back of an aircraft as it enters hostile airspace.
The enemy approaches. Bullets fly, maybe — the actual danger remains in dispute — but the aircraft remains aloft. The rider is OK.
Within weeks, though, the famous passenger begins embellishing his tale. The flight becomes a “suicide mission.” The enemy’s air fleet grows in size. The firefight, just a few minutes long, becomes hours.
News anchor Brian Williams?
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No. Future president Lyndon Johnson, in 1942. LBJ got a Silver Star for his experience that day, a military honor some historians still think he did not earn.
Exaggerating one’s personal stories, as Johnson and Williams appear to have done, is a common human endeavor, psychologists say. Battlefield courage, workplace integrity, scholarship — all are subjects for routine embellishment.
“Everybody does it. It’s very prevalent,” said Len Saxe, a social psychologist at Brandeis University. “It’s a natural process.”
Researchers have found personality traits that may lead to deception. Narcissism is one. Extroverts are more likely to lie, a 1990s study found. “Self-confidence and physical attractiveness” may also improve deception skills.
But embellishment isn’t limited to gregarious politicians or media stars. Thousands of businessmen and businesswomen, teachers, athletes, writers and journalists have claimed nonexistent work experience, distorted their backgrounds and enhanced their personal histories, even at great professional risk.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, experts said. All of us lead with our best foot if we can, sometimes bending reality in the process. Memories can falter as well.
But some psychologists said the furor surrounding Williams’ truth stretch suggests something more: The famous may be especially prone to unacceptably tall tales, particularly as their stories mature over time.
Public figures, it turns out, are rarely challenged in public. That can leave them believing their own myths at the expense of reality.
“People who are in the public eye … think they’re above it,” said Jeffrey Walczyk, a psychology professor at Louisiana Tech University and a student of human deception for more than a decade.
“It’s possible (Williams) didn’t lie, in the sense that he came to believe what he had said,” Walczyk said. “But he probably thought no one would fact-check, or he believed he could get away with it.”
The fact checking of Williams was everywhere over the past week.
He admitted “misremembering” a 2003 incident in Iraq involving a military helicopter in which he and a crew had traveled. In some tellings, Williams claimed the chopper was hit by enemy fire and forced to land.
But others on the mission said Williams’ aircraft actually arrived in the combat zone long after the firefight. That forced the newsman to apologize for the error and led his employer, NBC News, to suspend him for six months without pay.
The broadcaster’s story was eerily reminiscent of another retracted tale involving former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. She once claimed she faced gunfire while traveling in Bosnia, but she adjusted the story after it was challenged.
In 2007, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden said he had been shot at during a trip to Iraq. Later he clarified: “I was near where a shot landed.”
Ronald Reagan claimed he witnessed the liberation of a Nazi death camp. He did not. Doubts have been raised about post-enlistment stories of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL portrayed in the film “American Sniper.”
The University of Notre Dame fired football coach George O’Leary less than a week after he was hired because of academic and athletic exaggerations on his resume. RadioShack, now in bankruptcy court, was once run by a man who claimed two college degrees. He had none.
In these and similar cases, miscreants typically claim faulty memories or missing details — few embellishers believe they’re actually lying, psychologists say.
“We tend to remember what we’ve last said,” Saxe explained. “The further we are from an experience, the more we are likely to remember not what actually happened … but what we said about it.”
That appears to be true in Williams’ case. By most accounts, his early stories about the incident were closer to the stories told by other witnesses. Over the years, though, the anchorman’s place in the narrative — and the mistaken damage to his helicopter — grew.
That kind of gradual embellishment seems most typical in stories told about stressful events. And nothing, it seems, is more stressful than presence in a battle zone.
That means war stories are particularly susceptible to exaggeration and false memories. And that may be why veterans fiercely guard the stories told about the wars in which they’re involved, watching for embellishments and half truths.
Some of Williams’ sharpest criticism this month came from Iraq war vets.
“When you have somebody overdoing the story, or even making up the story, it takes away from the realities we face as soldiers,” said Pedro Sotelo, a Kansas City area veteran of the Iraq War.
“We feel we have been let down,” he said, referring to the Williams controversy. “To put yourself on a pedestal and act as if you’re some kind of movie star, it goes against everything we believe and everything we train for.”
Joe Davis, public affairs director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was also harsh.
“All veterans can smell out wannabe heroes because of the attention they draw to themselves,” he said, referring to everyone who has enhanced service records.
The fear of exaggerated service stories was behind federal legislation — later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds — that made it illegal to falsely claim a military honor. In 2013, though, Congress passed a new Stolen Valor Act criminalizing false claims of military heroics by people attempting to profit from the lie.
“The VFW wants all con artists to pay a very severe penalty, and a very public price, for daring to steal the valor of those too few who survived and of the great many who did not,” Davis said.
Even some veterans have been known to enhance their service stories over a backyard beer or with colleagues at a reunion. But that kind of self-aggrandizement is different, psychologists say, from politicians or public figures whose embellishments are meant to serve a public purpose.
Famous people “have grandiose ideas of what they can get away with,” Walczyk said. “Sometimes people become a little bit delusional and they don’t self-monitor enough. … And sometimes if they tell the tale enough, they can actually begin to believe it.”
Tall tales and exaggerations don’t always ruin careers.
We don’t know exactly what Lyndon Johnson believed about his ride that day in the Pacific. Whatever embellishments he added later, though, the Texas congressman eventually rose to the presidency. His tale barely slowed his ascent.
Famed Johnson biographer Robert Caro thinks Johnson’s plane did take enemy fire that day. But the firefight just wasn’t good enough for the future commander in chief. He had to make a good story better.
“Exaggeration is a normal aspect of war stories, only to be expected,” Caro later wrote.
“With Johnson, however, exaggeration spilled over into something more — until the story of his wartime service bore little resemblance to the reality.”