We all know it’s not nice to lie. And most of us realize that, aside from the little white lies that get lumped under the innocuous (and incredibly flexible) heading of “social lubrication,” lying can be both negative and highly destructive.
But what about exaggeration? The average person would probably lump exaggeration in with lying, although most of us consider it more along the lines of a harmless and annoying fib than serious deceit. But that mindset may just need a bit of tweaking. In fact, a recent study shows that exaggeration, far from being either negative or destructive, may in fact be a vital part of our self-improvement.
According to psychology experts, lying causes stress and significant mental tension. People who are lying, and who have a vested interest in getting away with those lies, tense up when they lie, because trying to remember a lie and make it sound believable takes a lot of energy. But when people exaggerate, not only don’t they tense up, they seem more at ease when discussing those exaggerations than if they were talking about the truth.
This effect was discovered during recent study, published in the journal Emotion, which showed that students who exaggerated their grade point averages did not show the same levels of stress and tension when talking about their grades as they would have if they were lying about something, even when interviewers accessed the students’ actual grades with their permission. In fact, they were calmer than students who had reported their grades accurately. “It was a robust effect, the sort of readings you see when people are engaged in a positive social encounter, or when they’re meditating,” says Wendy Berry Mendes, senior author of the study.
What’s even stranger is that, upon follow up, researchers found that students who had exaggerated their grades later improved those grades – often by exactly the amount they had exaggerated them in the study.
So what’s going on? According to the experts, exaggeration isn’t lying so much as it is, “… an exercise in projecting the self toward one’s goals,” as Dr. Richard H. Gramzow puts it, in a recent NYT article (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/06/health/06mind.html?ref=science). We exaggerate not to get away with something, but to rehearse realities we’d like to create. And in doing so, we sometimes actually manage to make those exaggerated predictions come true.
In fact, it seems that exaggeration is a built-in mechanism for the ever popular “fake it ’til you make it” routine. We yearn for something so bad that we start acting, and talking, like it’s already true. But over time, wishing it were so (and the cognitive dissonance of it not being so) can lead us to making those dreams a reality. “Basically, exaggeration here reflects positive goals for the future, and we have found that those goals tend to be realized,” says Gramzow.
So the next time someone comes up to you and starts to tell you a fish tale of epic proportions, relax. Instead of becoming annoyed at their confabulation, look below the surface at what those exaggerations say about their hopes, dreams and desires. Who knows, you may just be getting a glimpse of their future.