The telling of personal stories has been an important aspect of human communication since before the development of complex language. Sharing one’s experiences is an integral part of personal relationships. It is typically one the first subjects that friends or acquaintances discuss when meeting (“How are you? What have you been up to? How was your weekend?”). In the context of personal relationships, the accuracy of the stories is important but not critical. A little embellishment to make an anecdote more interesting or illustrative is usually not harmful. Most of us probably know someone who tells one incredible story after another. To be polite, the most one can do is to tactfully avoid such a person and not question his stories directly.
When personal anecdotes are used to influence others, the rules are different. Unverifiable stories should be given no value in the public sphere. There are no categories of people or stories that should be exempt from this. Here is a list of reasons that personal stories are fabricated in order to manipulate others, with some notable examples:
1. To extract money or something else of value from individuals
Panhandlers will create a story with their appearance, a sign or even a baby, to solicit contributions. In most cases there is no way to know the true circumstances of the beggar and where the money will go. Another example: “I lost 30 pounds in three weeks using this simple trick!”
2. To influence public policy
Congressional hearings on subjects that affect everyday life are often light on subject matter expertise and heavy on the personal stories of “ordinary Americans”. No surprise there – the dramatic story is more likely to get everyone on the news. The stories are usually promoted as typical and indicative of a widespread problem, without evidence to back up the claim.
A recent example of this category is comedian Sarah Silverman’s false story about being paid less than a male colleague for the same work. It was such a trivial claim it’s difficult to fathom why she bothered to mention it. Her claim could fall into either the next two categories, also.
3. To elicit attention and sympathy; to claim status as victim
Claiming victimhood can be the new shortcut to celebrity in the USA, thanks largely to social media. Faking cancer or other serious disease is a common theme for attention and money. The reward can be something as insignificant as a sympathetic comment or a “like” on Facebook.
This is an attempt to be included in a group or make a connection with an individual. It can be another form of eliciting attention (hey, I’m a victim, too!). It can be benign in a personal context, where a little white lie can make a human connection without negative consequences.
An example of this type of fib is Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald falsely stating that he served in Special Forces, when talking to an allegedly homeless veteran. It was in a personal context – he wasn’t making a statement for public consumption – and it would have been a harmless embellishment had it not been caught on video.
5. To appear more experienced/interesting
We’ve all done this, at one time, haven’t we? Created a story that makes us seem more interesting or exciting? C’mon, you know you have! Hopefully you haven’t told whoppers like NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and Hillary Clinton, both of whom falsely claimed to have been under fire in a war zone, Williams in Iraq in 2003 and Clinton in Bosnia in 1996.
6. To evade responsibility for bad acts
“I shoplifted that diamond necklace because mom didn’t like me best.”
Always be on guard for these manipulations – stories are not facts, anecdotes are not evidence.