How We Perceive Self-Deception

When it comes to "buying" excuses, women aren't exactly in the market, according to a new study that explores how men and women perceive self-deception. Men and women alike have long claimed everything from sleep deprivation to debilitating hangovers in an attempt to excuse poor academic, athletic or job performance. Creating a rationale for our shortcomings, or self-handicapping, sidesteps the issue of innate ability--or lack thereof. "Self-handicapping seems to buffer people's self-esteem when they fail," explains study co-author Edward Hirt, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington. "It's also an impression-management strategy, a way to make other people perceive them as competent."

The researchers posed 888 subjects with a scenario in which a student named Chris (the gender was randomly assigned) forgoes studying for an important exam to go to the movies. The marks Chris received on the test varied, as did his/her reasons for slacking off. In one instance Chris' self-sabotage is overt: s/he invites a friend to the movies. In the other, Chris' indiscretion is subtle: a friend invites Chris to the movies. Afterward participants were surveyed on their perceptions of Chris.

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Hirt found that whether Chris was said to be a man or woman did not influence participants' assessments. But men and women viewed Chris' behavior differently. The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, determined that both men and women readily discounted ability as the cause of Chris' poor test results. But women often viewed self-handicapping as a personality flaw: Chris was inherently lazy, unmotivated and lacking in self-control. Male respondents were more hesitant to condemn Chris, though many did admit that s/he would make a poor study buddy. Women also picked up on more obscure forms of handicapping. When Chris accepted an invitation to the movies instead of initiating the trip, women still regarded his/her motives dubiously, but men attributed the act to peer pressure.

Hirt's research appears to pinpoint a fundamental difference in the qualities that men and women value in others. "Guys seem to value competence to a greater extent. They don't really see effort as inherently good by itself.... Women have very strong belief systems about effort withdrawal. They pride themselves on being hard workers," says Hirt.

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