Have you ever lied to get out of something you didn’t want to do? Do you tend to put off unpleasant jobs? In school, did you ever make up an excuse? Cheat on a test? Most people have had one of these experiences. According to Bob Feldman (Author of “The Liar in Your Life”), the majority of the population lies, often without feeling remorse. Why do people do this? And why does lying, cheating, and procrastinating prevent us from achieving fulfillment?
On a typical high school or college campus, students have notorious reputations for putting things off until the last-minute or failing to complete assignments or tests at all. Cheating is perceived by instructors & school officials as so pervasive that we develop elaborate honor systems and codes to prevent it. In workplaces, bosses and coworkers know that employees bend, stretch, and distort the truth. Shows like NBC’s “The Office” put these behaviors in a humorous light, and everyone can relate to these plot lines, no matter how ludicrous they may get.
I have long been interested in the topic of student excuses, lying, and cheating, both from an instructional and a theoretical point of view. My interest was first sparked by an article I read in a higher education newspaper which accused college professors of killing off the grandparents. The most typical student excuse for exams, missed papers, claimed the article’s author, was the death of a grandparent. Some students have, according to this article, killed off not just 4 but as many as 8 or 10 grandparents in the course of their college careers. Even in a blended family, 10 grandparents would be an unbelievable number. Obviously, said the author, these kids are making up the entire story in hopes of buying more time to complete the work. The problem I’m most concerned about is the long-term negative effect these type of behaviors can have in their adult lives. We all have that friend or family member who lies just because the sun is shining. Not a good look or a good reputation to have. How does this happen? How does a “good” person go bad? I have a list of reasons below I want to share with you to answer that question:
1. Reinforcement. The seeds of lying are planted and mature while people are in school. Desperate due to procrastination, heavy course loads, the need to work, students make a tiny foray into the world of the excuse-maker and liar. They aren’t called on their “family emergency” by their instructor, so the next time they become more bold. Getting away with the excuse or lie strengthens their inclination to lie the next time.
2. Memory distortions.The second reason is that lies and excuses build on each other and create their own reality. People who lie about their past, as was the case with Ellis, tell one little story that doesn’t seem “so bad.” The next time, having told that story, it becomes part of their long-term memory. What psychologists call source memory, or our recall for where something happened to us, can be faulty, and we forget that we told that tiny fib. The fib becomes part of our long-term memory. We are also vulnerable to the planting of false memories. If I read a string of words to you such as “cake, candy, honey, sugar,” and later ask you if the word “sweet” was in the list, the chances are good that you’ll think it was. The sweet words in the list conjure up the category label and now it becomes part of your neutral network. According to the cognitive explanation, then, lies and excuses build on each other and create their own supposed truthful memories.
3. Protection of positive sense of identity. This less rational view our sense of self, or identity. People want to believe that they are ethical, honest, and morally upstanding. They will go through all sorts of mental shenanigans to maintain this view, even when their behavior is in direct conflict with “reality.” Rather than admit that they lied, cheated, or worse, they twist the facts around so that, in their minds, they didn’t. It’s not consistent with your identity as an honest person to admit that you made up an excuse, so rather than do this, you start to believe in the excuse. Or you might use that famous defense mechanism known as “projection” in which you attribute the blame to someone else.
4. Self-serving biases. Social psychologists point out that one set of guidelines to evaluate ourselves and another to evaluate others. In line with the identity explanation, the way we evaluate ourselves is pretty lax. We’ll blame the situation, not ourselves, when we make excuses or lie. But catch someone else in a lie that’s a different story. This person is bad, morally defective, and someone we should avoid at all costs if not penalize. This process, known as the “fundamental attribution error” (does this bring back memories of your intro psych class?), is an important one in the excuse-making, lying, and even procrastination literature.