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Is What Aaron Rodgers Said Lying?

Exploring the definition of lying and why the intention to deceive matters.

Key points

  • Aaron Rodgers has been criticized publicly for lying about his vaccination status.
  • Lying with an intent to deceive has different psychological consequences than lying unintentionally.
  • Deceiving others has negative consequences to a person's relationships and reputation.

At the time, my plan was to say that I’ve been immunized. It wasn’t some sort of ruse or lie. It was the truth.’” —Aaron Rodgers on the Pat McAfee Show, November 5, 2021.

Andrii Lievientsov/Unsplash
Source: Andrii Lievientsov/Unsplash

For any professional football fan like me, Aaron Rodgers’ recent comments about his vaccination status have put the topic of lying directly in our faces. If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, the former three-time NFL MVP of the Green Bay Packers made some controversial statements about his vaccination status that led many NFL commentators to conclude that he lied.

In August 2021, Rodgers was asked whether he was vaccinated. In response, Rodgers nodded affirmatively and said, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized,” and continued to talk about other players who haven’t been vaccinated. Although he was never vaccinated using one of the FDA-approved vaccines, Rodgers said that the NFL was fully aware of his immunization situation and had clear reasons for making his medical decisions (see an interview of him discussing his views and choices here).

In recent years, Rodgers’s situation is just one of many that require us to critically think about lying.

What Is Lying and Why Does it Matter?

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the most traditional definition of lying is “to make a believed-false statement to another person with the intention that the other person believes that statement to be true.” In other words, a person must make a statement that they know is untrue with the intent to deceive the listener. From this perspective, lying is not simply about making a false statement — it’s about misleading the listener to believe something that you know is inaccurate. From this perspective, the intention to deceive is a critical component of lying.

It’s also possible to lie by telling something that’s not true without an intention to deceive (Mahon, 2008). From a self-deception perspective, we often lie to ourselves by believing something false or refusing to believe something true (Warren, 2014). When we do, we’ll pass lies onto other people without any intention of misleading them because we actually believe the lies we’re spreading. For example, for centuries, people believed the world was flat. They communicated that belief to everyone around them.

Now, science gives us ample evidence that the world is, in fact, round. People were technically lying when they said the Earth was flat because the facts were untrue, but they actually believed the lie. Now, very few of us would say the Earth is flat because we know that it’s round (although there’s a resurgence of people who believe the Earth is flat in recent years, referred to as Flat Earthers – a topic for another day).

Lying is spreading untrue information either with the intent to deceive or because you actually believe your lies.

Why Intention to Deceive Matters

Although you can lie with or without intending to deceive your listener, your relationship's psychological experience and consequences are very different. If you actually believe a lie and spread it, you’re not aware that you’re doing anything wrong! You don’t see yourself harming others or ethically crossing any boundaries that would damage people who hear your lies.

Psychologically, your ethical principles remain intact, and your relationships are only damaged if and when the truth comes out, and you realize that you’ve been lying. At that time, it was relatively simple to make amends for your misinformation and try to repair any fake news or misinformation that emerged from your beliefs.

MPH Photos/Shutterstock
Source: MPH Photos/Shutterstock

However, suppose you intentionally mislead and deceive others by encouraging them to believe something that you know isn’t true or honest response to what they’re asking you. In that case, it will hurt your relationship with them when you’re caught. They won’t trust you anymore. They probably won’t respect you or your choices. They may not want to be close to you emotionally or physically because it’s not psychologically safe to be in a relationship with someone who intentionally lies to you. And it can profoundly hurt you because you know you’re doing something ethically and morally problematic. In the end, it’s the intent to mislead others that’ll profoundly hurt your relationships, reputation, and self-esteem.

The Naked Truth

Intention to deceive is a profoundly important aspect of lying. We all lie to ourselves regularly by believing things that aren’t true. As we do, we pass those flawed beliefs onto others. But that’s a different psychological process than intentionally misleading others, giving them information that’s clearly inaccurate because you want them to believe something untrue.

I don’t know whether Aaron Rodgers intentionally misled the NFL, his teammates, or even his fans about whether he has received the FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine or not. It’s possible that he fundamentally believes that he’s “immunized” through whatever treatments he used. But, if people perceive that he intentionally misled them into thinking he was vaccinated, they’ll react with distrust, anger, and resentment.

This week, Rodgers apologized for misleading the public about his vaccination status.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D. ABPP

Note: I cannot respond to personal requests for advice over the internet—best on your continued journey.

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