Is Lance Armstrong A Psychopath?

A Harvard Medical School professor weighs in.

Is Lance Armstrong merely a lying narcissist, or is he, as several media outlets have speculated (not to mention the Twitterverse), a psychopath? If we learned anything from Armstrong's two-part interview last week (aside from the fact that Oprah Winfrey has a zero tolerance policy regarding fat jokes) it's that he was—and perhaps remains—an exceptionally good liar. The full extent of his lying ways is still unclear (he claims to have competed in his last two runs at the Tour de France without doping, but many believe he's just saying as much to outlast the statute of limitations imposed by the USADA). But is all that lying, and conniving, and suing and dodging and regretting all part of some larger flaw in Armstrong?

Not so fast, says, Dr. Ron Schouten, a forensic psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor who recently co-authored the book “Almost a Psychopath” (excerpted in these pages last July). Schouten has a Google alert for any mention of the word psychopath—he's that kind of guy—which he says has been getting a ton of hits ever since Armstrong decided to come clean. But upon watching Armstrong's taped interviews with Oprah (purely as an exercise, as he obviously can't diagnose someone without meeting them) the idea that the cyclist is completely psychopathic doesn't seem to check out. He didn't seem cunning or manipulative, Schouten notes. “He clearly did terrible things, but appears to be remorseful, and has empathy and a real emotional connection, at the very least to his children, but I also think to others and to Livestrong.  You wouldn’t see that in a psychopath.”

So how to explain the fact that Armstrong could have lived a lie for 15 years?

“People have their self-narratives that they tell themselves and other people,” Schouten explains, noting a similarity between the ways Armstrong and Manti T'eo both got caught up in these falsehoods. “Once the lie is out there, you can come clean without being caught, which very few people do, or you can wait to get caught and fight it aggressively. If you’re Lance you're going to fight it the same way you would sprint up a hill.”

There's also the fact that in some cases, as I've noted elsewhere, people can become convinced that the stories they tell about themselves are true. Jonathan Adler, a professor at Olin College who specializes in narrative psychology, explains that these stories become, in a way, the “most important fiction. It’s based on a true story,” he says. So while we don' t know the full extent of Armstrong's rationale for admitting that he lied, we can at least relish the fact that he's no longer inhabiting in a world of his own making.