Thursday, July 27, 2006

71. Stretching truth is natural

Its commonplace is such that I have taken the liberty of introducing it in nomenclature as "The Exaggeration Principle." ‘Principle' might be the wrong word, for it might only be a theory, factor or postulate, but I like the way that sounds, so I am sticking with it.

The exaggeration principle is increasingly becoming a dictum of life similar to trying to decide whether or not a given statement is true or false. It is used in business, politics and other areas of life, such as story telling. Its purpose is to create an action or reaction, depending on the nature of the exaggeration. It can be used for effect, revenge, to start trouble, create a panic or as a way of lying without completing lying- an infamous ploy which hinges on the fact that part of the story is true.

The exaggeration principle is exactly as it suggests- an exaggeration of the truth. The exaggeration exists as measures of embellishment, overstatement and amplification, varying in degree based on the situation at hand. Sometimes the principle is done purposely to harm another individual, sometimes innocently as a part of human nature. Key words include: every, always, never, everybody, nobody. These are the action words often responsible for the exaggeration, although there are many others. The principle can be completely harmless such as telling fish tales, or extremely dangerous when used in business and politics. In the worst case scenarios, an important truth might be ignored based on the same idea that those that "cry wolf' are eventually ignored in the matter of truth.

In the workplace, it is common among competing employees. One employee might walk by and see another employee sitting down. Maybe a few hours later, or even the next day, the employee might again walk by and see the same employee sitting. The correspondence to his or her supervisor is that "every time" I see that employee he or she is just sitting around. The statement is true, but on the basis of a very small sample size. However, that supervisor might then tell another supervisor that the employee is "always" sitting around, now clearly exaggerating the situation.

This was often the case in health care, especially from concerned advocates, such as the families, social workers and others. The worst example of exaggeration was often presented as "always" or "never" occurring. For example, facility resident Ms. Jones "never" has her nails properly trimmed or she is "always" in bed without her alarms on. Other departments often complained about each other, "the floors are never clean," or "the food is always cold." Each place of employment has their examples.

The trouble for supervisors in the previous example is getting to the truth. Do we properly trim Ms. Jones' nails, and is the food always cold? Where does the truth lie? Unconsciously, I think we perform an exaggeration appraisal on each bit of information we receive, based on from whom the information is coming. Some people are quickly noted for grossly exaggerating a small situation, while others may undermine a very serious one.

In politics, exaggeration often reveals itself in "spin." A fact is exaggerated, twisted or extrapolated to misrepresent the truth. The "slippery slope" argument is also a form of exaggeration in which a simple fact is extrapolated to form a ridiculous conclusion. A recent example is the gay marriage campaign in which opponents suggested that legally permitting gays to be married would lead to other odd nuptials, such as women marrying their pet goats. The idea of "spin," "slippery slopes," and other exaggeration are common forms of rhetoric, especially in the news world of five-second sound bites. These exaggerations are used to shape public opinion by creating slogans or instilling fear. Entitling the war as "Operation Iraqi Freedom," clearly exaggerated the benevolence of our endeavor.

The embellishment of fact often includes numbers- again, sometimes in innocence, other times, as a measure of deceit. The fact might include an idea that is not often researched, such as a technical number. It might be that 3 to 5 percent of all scientists dispute the idea of global warming. That percentage might change to "around 5 percent," then to "5 to 10 percent," and finally "over 10 percent." The change in percentage is often directly proportional to the interest of the person or party presenting the information.

Finally, the principle is frequently used in our social lives. It is used to make the stories we tell just a little more exciting and to strengthen our arguments with family and friends. From barbeques to the late night scene, those great stories get a little "taller" with each recital. Interestingly, a recent AP Poll revealed that 52% of Americans think lying is never justified, while 40% think exaggeration is acceptable when it makes a story more interesting. Conversely, in family matters, the conversation often turns into a barrage of exaggerations. For example, those people that are sometimes late are described as "always" being late. There are also those that "always" borrow money, and "never" pay it back. An annoying habit can be made out of questioning each exaggeration, asking, "Really, he is always late, you mean to say that he never arrives on time?"

While "The Exaggeration Principle" may never have been officially recognized, I am sure that it has existed since the beginning of human communication. It can be fun, "dueling" it out with friends to see who can spur the biggest reaction through the amplification of the facts. Unfortunately, it can also cause a great deal of harm, as many people can be harmed when others act on an exaggeration as fact. Politically, exaggerated facts can lead to civil unrest, uprisings and even war. "The Exaggeration Principle" is powerful concept; its users might consider proceeding with caution.

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