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Excuses, excuses, excuses: Why people lie, cheat, and procrastinate

Why do honest people lie, cheat, and make excuses?

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 my colleague 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 college campuses, students have notorious reputations for putting things off till the last minute or failing to complete assignments or tests at all. Cheating is perceived by instructors 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.

But we know that preventing these behaviors is about as likely to be successful as stemming the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We can put up protective barriers, try to put the lid on this behavior, or attempt to break it into small bits, but there's no way to eliminate it completely.

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 piqued 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, and the like, 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 just making the whole thing up.

In a previous post on the topic of grandparenting I talked a bit about the grandparent excuse, but I'd like to revisit it here from a different vantage point. Students (or should I say professors) do not actually kill the grandparents in their excuses. An anonymous survey I conducted on my college campus of several hundred students showed that students didn't use dead grandparents as excuses. Instead their most likely fake excuse was "family emergency." In fact, when grandparents die, it is a devastating event for many young people. And they don't just die on exam week or the day a paper or job is due. Instructors (and employers) only know about the death of grandparents when the event coincides with one of these deadlines. But the family emergency- that is a different matter altogether. "Emergency" conjures up the image of inevitability and unavoidability. "Family" is vague enough to cover anything from a sister's toothache to an uncle's decision to uproot his family and move across the country. This excuse is one size fits all.

As an instructor, I face these issues all the time. I try to handle each case fairly. Students in one class I teach (a very large lecture) must fill out an "Excuse Form" which my teaching assistants and I evaluate and vote on before accepting or rejecting. We are looking to weed out liars but also to make fair and consistent rulings. Most of the time, I think the system works. However, there are always exceptions, some of them quite extreme. My teaching assistants and I spend probably what is inordinate time and energy trying to sift out the grains of truth. I'm pretty sure we do a good job, but I know there are students who slip through the cracks.

Let's start with the case of 23-year-old Adam Wheeler who was indicted for faking not only his college application to Harvard but also scholarship applications including the Rhodes and Fulbright. He'd already been suspended for academic dishonesty from Bowdoin College before lying his way into Harvard. Ultimately he got caught when he wrote his own letters of recommendation for those prestigious scholarships. As a side note, I'm the Rhodes Scholarship faculty advisor at UMass Amherst, so I found the case particularly compelling and disturbing.

Another case ripped from the headlines is Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, running for the Senate as reported in the May 18 New York Times. His recounting of his experiences during the 60s to veteran's groups and others is replete with stories about service. However, not only did he NOT serve in Viet Nam, he tried repeatedly (and succeeded) to avoid going to war. Blumenthal is one in a string of politicians and even historians such as Joe Ellis who either lie about or plagiarize their work. We unfortunately have come to expect this sort of behavior from politicians, but a historian? Give me a break!

How does this happen? How does a "good" person go bad? There are four reasons:

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 neural 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 we 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.

People who lie and cheat rarely blame themselves. In an anonymous survey I conducted of my introductory psychology students last year, I asked them to tell me whether they cheated on a test. A depressingly high 20% said they cheated on a test, paper, or both. Of these, only 6% of the reasons given were admissions of being too lazy to study. Another 25% of the reasons were that the cheater had "no chance to study" (a euphemism for too lazy). The rest said they were desperate to do well, or blamed something about the situation (the professor didn't care or everyone was doing it). Yet, just about half who admitted to cheating believed that people who made false excuses or cheated were "shortchanging themselves and their education."

We can concluCheatingde that there are several complex and interlocking reasons for lying, cheating, and fabricated excuse-making. The reason that these are a concern are not only because these behaviors get a person in trouble, but they are behaviors that keep a person from achieving maximum fulfillment. These individuals are "shortchanging themselves." As I tell my students on day one of the semester- when you cheat, you're depriving your brain of the experiences and knowledge that you came to college to gain. At a deeper level, as the brilliant psychoanalyst Karen Horney observed, when you create a false self, the gap widens between who you are and who you wish to be. Eventually you lose touch with your real self, and that sets the stage for neurosis to develop, affecting both your mental and physical health.

If you are going to tap into your true potential, you have to set aside that false self and accept your real self, flaws and all. As you do so, you'll have fewer reasons to lie. And that's the truth.

I'm interested in your excuses! Please click here to take an anonymous survey about which excuse. I'll report the results in a later posting. You can also learn more about discovering your "true" self in my book, The Search for Fulfillment; read an excerpt here on Horney and the false self.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010

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