Science Watch

Exaggeration. It's the stuff that legends are made of. That 20-pound "shark" your grandfather lost was probably an eight-pound bass. But it's fun to imagine the shark. It makes Grandpa seem somewhat larger-than-life.

In fact, exaggerating our successes may be something we all do to make us feel better about ourselves, according to University of Maine social psychologist Scott Eidelman, PhD. And now he's got the first bit of evidence toward proving it in a new study published in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 5). He, along with co-author, Monica Biernat, PhD, of the University of Kansas, found that once people achieve a success, such as passing a test, they tend to exaggerate what it took to succeed. And preliminary findings link that tendency to a desire to increase self-esteem.

If their theory proves true, it may explain why doctors think residents need to work until exhaustion to prove themselves worthy of their degree, says Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, PhD. If we increase our own perception of what it took to succeed, we may hold others to those same inflated standards.

"This research has implications for how we think about ourselves, but also for what we think of others when we sit in judgment of them," says Dunning.

Establishing the premise

Eidelman first tested his hypothesis that people inflate the difficulty of a task once they succeed, in two real-world situations. In a study of undergraduates, he measured students' standards of success just after they took an exam and again after they found out how they did on the exam. Questions included: "What is the minimum number of points on the [100-point] exam that you would be willing to call a success?"As predicted, he found that students who met or exceeded their own standards on the exam raised their standards once they got their scores-from an average of 78 points to an average of 83.7 points. Those who did not meet their own standards on the exam did not change their evaluation of what they considered a successful score.

Eidelman found similar results in a study that examined how university-based psychologists perceive the requirements needed to secure tenure in their departments. He surveyed 747 academics-some of whom had tenure, some of whom were up for tenure and some of whom were not yet up for tenure. He asked them questions such as the minimum number of journal publications needed to secure tenure and how innovative those publications needed to be.

Eidelman sent the 390 participants who responded a similar survey one year later. This time he asked whether participants had received tenure during the preceding year. In the end, Eidelman was able to analyze data for 262 participants. Of the 55 professors who indicated on the first survey that they were up for tenure, 46 had received tenure by the time of the second survey.

Those who were up for tenure and got it markedly increased their estimates of what their school required for tenure over the intervening year. On average, they said they needed one more publication than they originally indicated, and they claimed that those publications needed to be significantly more innovative. None of the other groups showed this pattern. In fact, long-tenured professors provided the lowest estimates of what it took to get tenure. That's because they no longer base their self-esteem on tenure achievement, Eidelman suspects.

"After you've been there a while, you're presumably more secure in terms of what you're doing," says Eidelman. "If your competence is clearly established, you don't need to show off."

Looking for a cause

But Eidelman needed more direct evidence to connect this tendency to increase standards once they've been met with a need to bolster self-esteem. So he designed a laboratory study that manipulated people's feelings of self-esteem in relation to a spatial reasoning task.

In the study, 65 University of Kansas (KU) undergraduate psychology students took part in what they thought was a standard test of spatial reasoning. Before taking the test, they estimated how many points out of 64 they would consider a success. The researchers then randomly scored the tests so that half the students scored 15 percent higher then their stated standard and half scored 15 percent lower.

Three weeks later, a research assistant called the participants, starting out the conversation with a comment designed to threaten or affirm students' self-esteem: They told them about a bogus US News and World Report survey showing that KU students had either one of the lowest-the threat situation-or highest-the affirmation situation-GPAs among the "Big 12" schools. The research assistant then asked participants how many points they would consider a success on the spatial reasoning test.

As Eidelman's theory predicted, students who exceeded their standards on the test and whose self-esteem was threatened during the follow-up phone call raised their standards. None of the other students showed this pattern, not even those students who succeeded but who subsequently had their self-esteem affirmed. In addition, those students who failed to meet their own standards didn't lower their standards on follow-up, even when their self-esteem was threatened.

"So to the extent that you need to establish your competence, you can raise standards," says Eidelman. "But if you're fine-you feel no need to convince people how good you are-all bets are off. There's no need to raise your standards."

Part of a larger context

Eidelman's findings are consistent with several themes in social psychology, says University of California, Los Angeles, social psychologist Bernard Weiner, PhD.

"There is a large self-enhancement literature, including hedonic biasing where one takes more credit for success than blame for failure," he says.

The finding also dovetails with past research showing that people take more pride in difficult tasks, he says.

In a related finding, social psychologist Ned Jones, PhD, showed that people self-handicap themselves-creating obstacles to success before a performance. That way if they succeed, they do it despite the obstacle, but if they fail, they have a good explanation.

"What I did was show that people are willing to create obstacles after the game is over," says Eidelman.

And although the link to enhancing self-esteem isn't fully proven, it's certainly an important issue, says Dunning, adding that self-esteem is important for many aspects of our mental health.

"Finding out how people bolster self-esteem in ways that help or hurt them is getting at core issues of how well people manage their psychological life on a daily basis," he says.

Beth Azar is a science writer in Portland, Ore.