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Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and the Need for Approval

Jan. 20, 2013
We all want to be loved and accepted. That’s a given. Lance Armstrong’s drug doping “admission” on Oprah and Manti Te’o’s scam/duping scandal point out what happens when the normal need for social affiliation goes into overdrive.

Sure, being in the media spotlight and being a champion are compelling motivators. Acclaim feels great, because it signals that other people like, love, admire and respect us. We feel a sense of belonging and that is the most powerful driver of human behavior that there is.

However, Armstrong and Te’o appear to have an outsize need for external social approval. While this need is normal in the human social animal, it is when the need for social approval overcomes and outweighs the moral imperative to do the right thing that people get into trouble. And well they should. Societies should discipline those who step over the line and violate our trust.

Armstrong spent years doping and even more years denying he cheated to win bike races. Te’o knew the online “girlfriend” was a fraud but kept it secret for weeks at the height of a media frenzy. They both knew what they were doing was wrong, but they lied and cover up because the pain of shame and embarrassment that was the inevitable end was difficult for them to imagine bearing.

This points to individuals who may be lacking in self-worth and self-acceptance. Despite tremendous natural abilities and successes, they went out of their way to try to amass even more public approval. Winning bike races or football championships wasn’t enough for these guys. They had to lie, cheat and deceive to get additional attention. Improved self-worth and self-compassion would have helped these two accept themselves with or without the cheers and fame they seemed to desperately need.

According to Pack Leader Psychology, people who are this desperate for approval and attention are often “Dominator” personality types. They know what they are doing is morally wrong, but they often lack the ability to be publicly accountable for their behavior until this accountability is forced upon them. Their need for approval is far more important than any desire to behave morally.

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