I’m not Exaggerating, I’m Aspiring

11 Oct



“134% of All People Exaggerate.”

                                          Unknown Author

Exaggeration is a common place phenomenon.  For one thing, it lies at  the heart of the advertising industry.  During last week’s Superbowl,  Chevrolet ran a commercial showing a driver of a Chevy Silverado talking to other pickup truck drivers in a post-apocalyptic world. The driver is told that one of their buddies unfortunately didn’t make it —  a misguided soul who drove a Ford.   And of course, locally  there was the  controversy over Papa John’s famous  slogan,  “Better ingredients, Better Pizza”,  to which Pizza Hut took such great offense.

For me the month of February brings up two other activities also prone to exaggeration–   filing income taxes and getting a dental checkup. The U.S. Internal Revenues Service estimates that about 40% of taxpayers exaggerate their deductions or business losses. According to a  Phillips Sonicare survey this is just about the same percentage of people who say they exaggerate how often they brush  or floss  their teeth  when they visit the dentist.

            The motive for exaggeration on a tax return is relatively straightforward— monetary gain. Lying to your dentist by exaggerating your commitment to oral hygiene, however, is more complicated. In this case people are looking for ways to avoid embarrassment or disapproval, or to look good and be more socially desirable.

            Exaggeration is among the most common forms of deceit in which people engage. It fits into the class of  psychological phenomena that social scientists call “self-enhancement”. “Self-enhancement” involves consistently taking a more positive view of  yourself, than is true, in order to convince others of your worth or acceptability.      

That 40% figure holds up  pretty well across various situations. Michael Kinsman, from Copley News Service,  reports that between  30 and 50% of American workers lie on their resumes, mostly exaggerating  their references, qualifications, or accomplishments. Peter  Voght a senior writer at Monster.com  advises job seekers to learn how to “package”  their résumés “smartly”, so that they can reach that  “happy medium between unintentional modesty and over-the-top exaggeration.”

               Other studies suggest that there is about a  10 to 18% gap  between what people say they do on surveys and what  close self-monitoring  reveals that they actually do.  These sort of exaggerations include things like church attendance,  watching popular television, how much they earn, compliance with physician’s orders,  prejudice,   charity, and  antisocial or illegal acts. People  even routinely  exaggerate how tall they are and regularly underestimate their weight.  All of these are part of our desire to be seen as socially desirable.

Psychological tests often try to weed out  this social desirability  factor in order to  make self-reported information  more accurate. Probably the most famous of all objective psychological tests , the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI),   takes   exaggeration very seriously and has a variety of internal scales   designed  to  measure things such as  lying, faking,   and the tendency to systematically answer true, false, or randomly. Paper and pencil tests are no substitute  for a lie detector and cannot tell you  specifically  when a person is exaggerating, but they can tell you if the person has a general tendency to do so.

Back in high school I had a friend who would always exaggerate how well he did on algebra tests. Even  if he failed completely  and  got a score  of  55  out of 100, he would say he got a 59 instead. I never  quite  understood  this seemingly  meaningless exaggeration,  but modern research may have an answer.   A recent series of   studies,  suggests   exaggerating about grades may differ psychologically from other forms of  deception. Exaggerating  past academic performance evidently does not  create the same level of  anxiety in people that lying  typically does.  In fact research reveals that exaggerators  often work hard to try to live up to the false image they project. One of the foremost researchers in this area, psychologist Richard H. Gramzow, now at Syracuse University,  suggests that these sort of exaggerations are best classified as aspirational,  rather than deceptive.  They are aimed more at the exaggerators themselves,   than at the audience. Gramzow  says. “Basically, exaggeration here reflects positive goals for the future, and we have found that those goals tend to be realized.”  Although I wouldn’t advise  using this as a defense in an IRS audit, these researchers also suggest that  the exaggeration  of  things like   charitable contribution are, not only self-enhancements,  but also the positive expression  of  future  goals.

  Aspirational exaggeration may explain things like Connecticut Representative  Richard Blumenthal’s misleading remarks  about his  military combat record,  or Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton’s story of being under sniper fire in Bosnia.

It has been suggested that self-monitoring  is generally more  accurate than the information   people  give on surveys. While this may be true,  that doesn’t mean that self-monitoring is free from misrepresentation and  exaggeration. In some jobs I’ve held , I‘ve had to complete  time sheets  which are  a  kind of self-monitoring.  If most people  accurately recorded everything they actually  did at work they  would be, at the very least, embarrassed,  if not in jeopardy of losing their jobs.  Most companies employ a coding system  that is woefully inadequate to cover all the possibilities that work presents. The lack of sufficient  descriptive codes only encourages misrepresentations and exaggeration. Freeman  Institute  has come to the rescue and published a tongue-in cheek  “Extended Job-Code List”. Among these  work  activity codes listed are:  5316 – Useless Meeting, 5318 – Trying to Sound Knowledgeable While in Meeting, 5402 – Trying to Explain Concept to Coworker Who Hates You, 5503 – Scratching Yourself, 6200 – Using Company Resources for Personal Profit, and 6221 – Pretending to Work While Boss Is Watching.
            A final form of self-monitoring  is the  health related diary or log. I’m still monitoring my blood sugar and  I’ve also kept a  food diary,  which at times has resembled an exercise in creative writing. You just have to know how to properly decode it. For example a “sliver of apple pie”,  actually means “ one big  honking piece of apple pie”.

    Recently Diane was keeping a health-related diary in which she had to list her activities ever hour. She wrote down she was putting away boxes, but didn’t specify that it was Christmas boxes she was putting away in late January. To not appear like she was an inactive person, who spent the whole day reading, the log forced her to vary her activities to include washing the kitchen floor, washing lots of clothes, and undertaking various cooking projects. I think her most creative entry, however, was listing vacuuming as an activity, when she was actually watching me vacuum (she wants you to know that she did dust).

One Response to “I’m not Exaggerating, I’m Aspiring”

  1. master avto glass in everett wa June 11, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening.
    I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this informative article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and commenting.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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