“134% of All People Exaggerate.”
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).