Lying to Spice up Life
It was in a moment of distraction that George stepped off a porch, twisted his ankle, and broke his foot. (Name has been changed to protect the clumsy.) There was no obstacle or force that caused the fall. Nothing mysterious, odd, or even comedic took place. He simply stepped down incorrectly while working in the yard. In the days that followed, people oftened ask about his injury, and he would tell the plain and embarrassing truth of the event. Most people looked bored when hearing this story, and several even commented, “You have to come up with a better story than that!” As a researcher, I found situations such as this one so intriguing that I began conducting research to find out if people would really prefer to hear a “better” story or the truth.
The most common way that people transform boring stories into interesting stories is by exaggerating. Most people consider exaggerations to be lies because they intentionally mislead others to believe events occurred in a way they did not.
Of course, lying is usually associated with a wide range of negative outcomes. Young children learn to see lying as morally wrong, and, as adults, we view people who lie negatively. Liars are even less likely to have successful relationships than people who are more honest. This suggests that there should be negative social consequences for storytellers who intentionally exaggerate in order to tell a “better” story.
On the other hand, people like good stories. Most experiences in everyday life are mundane, yet people share these experiences with others on a regular basis. In order to make these events even remotely entertaining, exaggerations are usually needed. When hearing about everyday events, listeners may not be terribly concerned with the exact facts or details of the vent. Instead, listeners may want to understand the significance of the event as the storyteller sees it. It is not about hearing the facts but about understanding the storyteller’s perspective. If this is the case, exaggerations may be a social tool that transforms everyday events into “better” stories while still retaining the central details.
In order to determine if exaggerations might be a social tool, Denise Beike and I conducted three studies in which we had research participants listen to recollections of events that were completely accurate, contained exaggerations, or contained outright lies. Participants consistently reported greatest enjoyment from hearing exaggerated versions of events. They also reported feeling closer to storytellers who exaggerated when retelling events. This was even the case when participants were provided with the facts of the events and knew that the stories stretched the truth.
According to these results, George might have more success in his social relationships if he exaggerated the unfortunate events that led to his broken foot. George could make the story more entertaining by amplifying the length of the fall, by overstating the distractibility of cute squirrels playing nearby, or even by embellishing on how loudly he screamed. These small exaggerations would highlight George’s personal experience in the moment, even if they were not exactly true. This would make his “boring” story more interesting, leading to a deeper social connection with his listeners.
However, our results also suggested that there is a fine line between exaggeration and outright lying. Stories that contain outrageous and unbelievable lies can lead to negative relationship outcomes. For example, if George were to tell his friends that he broke his foot pushing a young child out of the way of an oncoming bus, he would not reap any social benefits of disclosing the story. He would have gone too far. There appears to be a “Goldilocks” zone where exaggerations increase the social benefits of stories but outright lies damage social relationships.
So, exaggerations may be one form of lying that promotes a social connection with other people. This effect could be due to a number of cognitive or social factors. Exaggerations may allow listeners to become more absorbed in the story or to process the gist of the information more effectively. In addition, listeners may feel closer to storytellers who tell a better story because they appreciate the effort put into creating it. More research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind this embellishment phenomenon, but our research suggests that the value of a story may not lie in the specific details it provides but rather in the quality of the story being told. Telling a boring story reaps little social benefits, but good stories create a connection between the storyteller and the listener. And, at the end of the day, isn’t this why people tell stories in the first place?
For Further Reading: Cole, H. E. & Beike, D. R. (2018). Tall Tales Make Fast Friends: Exaggerating When Retelling Previous Experiences Fosters Relational Closeness. Journal of Personal and Social Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518787344
Holly Cole is an Assistant Professor at Wesleyan College in Macon Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Arkansas. Her primary research focuses on autobiographical memory, lying, and social relationships.