Researchers from the Census Bureau were able to access information about husbands’ and wives’ actual income. They also had the same people’s responses to a survey asking about their income. The answers from the two sources did not match. When wives made more money than their husbands, both the husbands and the wives distorted their reports of income in ways that made the husbands look better.
In the survey, the husbands reported income that was 2.9 percentage points higher than it actually was. For example, if a husband actually earned $60,000, he would say that he made $61,740 — $1,740 more than his employer said that he made.
Wives reported earning less than they actually did, by 1.5 percentage points. For example, if a wife earned $80,000, she would say that she made only $78,800 — $1,200 less than her employer said that she made.
The husbands exaggerated how much they made, and the wives understated how much they made. Both distortions made the couples seem more like traditional couples in which husbands make more money than wives. To the extent that high earnings are a source of pride, it is the husband whose ego is getting protected, at the expense of the wife’s legitimate claim to earnings success.
In the survey, the husbands and wives were also asked to report each other’s income. The same thing happened: Both the husbands and the wives overstated how much money the man made and understated how much money the woman made. But they did so to different degrees. The wives overstated their husbands’ income even more than their husbands did, and the husbands understated their wives’ income even more than their wives did.
Before I turned my attention to the study of single people, I used to do research on lying, including the reasons people give for telling their lies. In one pair of studies, for example, my students and I asked college students (in one study) and people from the community (in another) to keep diaries, every day for a week, of all the lies they told. We also asked them to tell us, in their own words, why they told each of their lies.
The participants never put their names on the lie diaries that they turned in to us; we didn’t want them to worry about whether owning up to their lies would make them look bad. We also stayed in touch with them during the week to be sure they were keeping up with their diaries every day.
Over the course of the week, all but one of the 77 college students and all but six of the 70 people from the community reported telling at least one lie. My guess is that if the study continued for more than a week, everyone would have reported at least one lie. Yes, that means that I think everyone lies.
I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Sometimes when people lie, they are trying to be nice. They are trying to protect other people from feeling embarrassed or getting hurt. Or they are trying to make another person seem better than they really are — smarter, for example, or more generous, or more successful. Examples of protecting other people’s feelings include telling someone with a new hairstyle that they look great when you really don’t like their new look or pretending to side with someone when you actually think they did the wrong thing. My colleagues and I called these “altruistic” or “kind-hearted” lies. Our participants told those kinds of lies more often to the people they cared about than to acquaintances or strangers.
More often, people lie to make themselves look good. When people tell these “self-serving” lies, they are trying to spare themselves from embarrassment or from getting hurt, or they are trying to make themselves look better than they really are. Examples of self-serving lies are claiming that you did a great project at school or at work when you really did poorly or pretending that you are still married when you run into an old friend who does not know that your spouse left you.
When we coded the reasons why the people in our studies told their lies, we found that about one out of every four lies (25%) were kind-hearted, and at least twice that many were self-serving. (The others were neither. For example, some lies were told just to make the conversation go more smoothly. People are sometimes tempted to lie when the truth is both complicated and boring.)
In the study of income, both the husbands and the wives distorted their reports in the same way. But the psychological implications were different. When husbands overstated their own income and understated their wives’, they were telling self-serving lies (or exaggerations, if you prefer). When wives overstated their husbands’ income and understated their own, they were telling altruistic lies (or distortions) — lies that spared the feelings of husbands who may have felt embarrassed not to be the higher earner.
A question left unanswered by this research is whether married couples exaggerate the husbands’ earnings and understate the wives’ even when husbands earn more than their wives. We will know we are making greater progress toward gender equity when lopsided distortions no longer occur under any conditions.