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Fishing stories are often associated with exaggeration. Rabelais' Pantagruel got a sea serpent when fishing.

Exaggeration is a representation of something in an excessive manner.


Exaggeration can be a rhetorical device or figure of speech. It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression.

Amplifying achievements, obstacles and problems to seek attention is an everyday occurrence[1] Inflating the difficulty of achieving a goal after attaining it, can be used to bolster self-esteem.[2]

In the arts, exaggerations are used to create emphasis or effect. As a literary device, exaggerations is often used in poetry, and is frequently encountered in casual speech.[3] Many times the usages of hyperbole describes something as better or worse than it really is.[4] An example of hyperbole is: "The bag weighed a ton."[5] Hyperbole makes the point that the bag was very heavy, though it probably does not weigh a ton.[6]

Exaggerating is also a type of deception,[7] as well as a means of malingering - magnifying small injuries or discomforts as an excuse to avoid responsibilities.[8]

Alarmism is excessive or exaggerated alarm about a real or imagined threats [9]

Society and culture[edit]

The exaggerator has been a familiar figure in Western culture since at least Aristotle's discussion of the alazon: 'the boaster is regarded as one who pretends to have distinguished qualities which he possesses either not at all or to a lesser degree than he pretends, exaggerating'.[10]

The boasting and bragging by arrogant or manipulative people has been sent up on stage since the first appearance of the alazon - 'a stock character in Greek comedy'.[11] Inflated praise in the form of flattery and puffery has a similarly lengthy history.[12]


Main article: Expressionism

'"Expressionist art" attempted to intensify the expression of feeling and attitude by exaggeration'.[13] In its wake, even the 'new and hard realism kept much of the distortion and exaggeration which had been one of the chief devices of from before Expressionism'.[14]


Charicature from 1796, parodizing the fashion of one or two feathers issuing vertically from a woman's headdress, as are also women's neo-classically influenced gown styles (rather new in England in 1796), and men's ultra-tight trousers (or "calf-clingers" in the slang of the period).

'Some theoreticians of the comic consider exaggeration to be a universal comic device'.[15] It may take different forms in different genres, but all rely on the fact that 'the easiest way to make things laughable is to exaggerate to the point of absurdity their salient traits'.[16]


Main article: Caricature

A caricature can refer to a portrait that exaggerates or distorts the essence of a person or thing to create an easily identifiable visual likeness: 'disproportionately increasing and emphasizing the defects of the features'.[17] In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.[18]


Main article: Slapstick

Slapstick is the recourse to humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of common sense.[19][20][21] These exaggerated depictions are often found in children's cartoons, and light film comedies aimed at younger audiences.

Paradoxical laughter[edit]

Main article: Paradoxical laughter

Paradoxical laughter is an exaggerated expression of humor which is unwarranted by external events. It may be uncontrollable laughter which may be recognised as inappropriate by the person involved. Freud considered 'the compulsive laughter which so often occurs on mournful occasions'[22] the by-product of ambivalence.


Main article: Overacting

Overacting is the exaggeration of gestures and speech when acting. It may be unintentional, particularly in the case of a bad actor, or be required for the role. For the latter, it is commonly used in comical situations or to stress the evil characteristics of a villain. Since the perception of acting quality differs between people the extent of overacting can be subjective.


Hamlet, by William Morris Hunt.

Though the boaster (alazon) is primarily a comic figure, 'the alazon may be one aspect of the tragic hero as well: the touch of miles gloriosus in Tamburlaine, even in Othello, is unmistakable, as is the touch of the obsessed philosopher in Faustus and Hamlet'.[23]

Literary analogues[edit]

  • In the BookWorld, warnings are issued about ' Poetry Island - any visit longer than a few hours will have an exaggerating effect on the senses. Upbeat poems will tend to have you laughing uncontrollably, while sombre poems will have you questioning your own worth in a most hideously self-obsessed manner'.[24]
  • The Monty Python Dirty Fork sketch demonstrates an absurd level of catastrophization where restaurant staff commit suicide and murder each other because of a customer complaint of a dirty fork. Compare with the scene in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail involving the Black Knight character which is the opposite extreme of absurdity (minimisation).


Negative thinking patterns, known as cognitive distortions, often contribute to a person’s symptoms of depression or anxiety. When a person is thinking with the cognitive distortion of magnification and minimization, they are either blowing things out of proportion or lessening their importance.[25]

Cognitive behavioral theory views magnification and minimization as subconscious, unrealistic mental processing[26] Closely related 'is overgeneralizing, where one takes a single negative event and see it as a never-ending pattern of defeat'.[27]

Psychoanalysis considered that neurotic exaggerations were the products of displacement[28] - overvaluations for example being used to maintain a repression elsewhere. Thus a conflict over ambivalence may be resolved by means of exaggerating one's love for a person so as to keep an unconscious hatred in further check.[29]

In cognitive therapy, decatastrophizing is a cognitive restructuring technique to treat cognitive distortions, such as magnification and catastrophizing, commonly seen in psychological disorders like anxiety[30] and psychosis.[31]


Münchausen syndrome by proxy is a controversial term that is used to describe a behavior pattern in which a caregiver deliberately exaggerates, fabricates, and/or induces physical, psychological, behavioral, and/or mental health problems in those who are in their care.[32]

Narcissists are known for a grandiose sense of self-importance[33] and can uses exaggeration to thwart any recognition of a moderate fallibility[34]

Histrionic personality disorder is known for "self-dramatization, theatricality, and exaggerated expression of emotion".[33]

Alice in Wonderland syndrome is a neurological condition which can alter perception, causing distortions and exaggerations to things such as sizes of objects and passage of time. [35]

Alternate terms and phrases[edit]


Common expressions and idioms[edit]

  • hyperbole
  • laying it on thick
  • overblowing
  • overreaction
  • overstating
  • stretching the truth

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (London 1996) p. 113.
  2. ^ Beth Azar All puffed up Monitor on Psychology June 2007, Vol 38, No. 6.
  3. ^ "Definition of Hyperbole". Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  4. ^ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hyperbole
  5. ^ Mahony, David (2003). Literacy Tests Year 7. Pascal Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-877-08536-9. 
  6. ^ "Hyperbole". Byu.edu. Retrieved 10 January 2014. 
  7. ^ Guerrero, L., Anderson, P., Afifi, W. (2007). Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
  8. ^ R. Rogers Clinical Assessment of Malingering and Deception 3rd Edition, Guilford, 2008. ISBN 1-59385-699-7
  9. ^ David Murray, Joel Schwartz (May 25, 2008), "Alarmism is an infectious disease", Society 34 (4): 35, doi:10.1007/BF02912206 
  10. ^ Aristotle, Ethics (Penguin 1976) p. 165.
  11. ^ H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Latin Literature (London 1966)p. 49
  12. ^ ""puff piece." Answers.com". The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1992. Retrieved 2006-07-22. 
  13. ^ Harold Bloom, Thomas Hardy (2010) p. 93
  14. ^ Harold Osborne ed., The Oxford Companion to Art (Oxford 1992) p. 397.
  15. ^ Emil Draitser, Techniques of Satire (1994) p. 135
  16. ^ M. Eastman/W. Fry, Enjoyment of Laughter (2008) p. 156.
  17. ^ Filippo Baldinucci, quoted in Harold Osborne ed., The Oxford Companion to Art (Oxford 1992) p. 204.
  18. ^ Caricature in literature
  19. ^ "slapstick - definition of slapstick by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia". Thefreedictionary.com. Retrieved 2013-04-29. 
  20. ^ "Slapstick Comedy - film, cinema". Filmreference.com. Retrieved 2013-04-29. 
  21. ^ "Slapstick comedy definition of Slapstick comedy in the Free Online Encyclopedia". Encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com. Retrieved 2013-04-29. 
  22. ^ Sigmund Freud, Case Studies II (PFL 9) p. 74.
  23. ^ Frye, Northrope (1973). Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton. p. 39. 
  24. ^ Jasper Fforde, One of Our Thursdays is Missing (London 2011) p. 249.
  25. ^ Star, Ph.D., Katharina. "Magnification and Minimization". About.com. Retrieved May 20, 2015. 
  26. ^ M. M. Antony/P. J. Norton, The Anti-Anxiety Workbook (2008) p. 83.
  27. ^ Paul Gilbert, Overcoming Depression (London 1999) p. 286
  28. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1994) p. 149
  29. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (PFL 10) p. 317.
  30. ^ Ryan C. Martin, Eric R. Dahlen. "Cognitive emotion regulation in the prediction of depression, anxiety, stress, and anger". Science Direct (November 2005): 1249–1260. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.06.004. 
  31. ^ Steffen Moritza, Lisa Schillinga, Katja Wingenfeldb, Ulf Köthera, Charlotte Wittekinda, Kirsten Terfehrb, Carsten Spitzerb. "Persecutory delusions and catastrophic worry in psychosis: Developing the understanding of delusion distress and persistence". Science Direct (September 2011): 349–354. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2011.02.003. 
  32. ^ Lasher, Louisa (2011). "MBP Definitions, Maltreatment Behaviors, and Comments". Retrieved 30 January 2012. 
  33. ^ a b Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) American Psychiatric Association (2000).
  34. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. 71
  35. ^ "Alice in Wonderland Syndrome". h2g2.com. September 21, 2009. Retrieved 4 January 2014. 

Further reading[edit]


  • Duttmann, AG; Phillips, J Philosophy of Exaggeration (Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy) (2007)

Academic papers[edit]

  • Clayer, JR; Bookless, C; Ross, MW Neurosis and conscious symptom exaggeration: Its differentiation by the illness behaviour questionnaire Journal of Psychosomatic Research Volume 28, Issue 3, 1984, Pages 237-241
  • Demaree, HA; Schmeichel, BJ; Robinson, JL; Everhart, D. Erik Behavioural, affective, and physiological effects of negative and positive emotional exaggeration. Cognition and Emotion, Volume 18, Number 8, 2004, 1079-1097(19)
  • Masterson, J; Dunworth, R; Williams, N Extreme illness exaggeration in pediatric patients: A variant of Munchausen's by Proxy?. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Vol 58(2), Apr 1988, 188-195.
  • McNicholas, F Slonims, V & Cass H Exaggeration of Symptoms or Psychiatric Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy? Child and Adolescent Mental Health 2003 Volume 5 Issue 2, Pages 69 – 75
  • Mittenberg, W; Patton, C; Canyock, EM; Condit, DC Base rates of malingering and symptom exaggeration. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. Vol 24(8), Dec 2002, 1094-1102.
  • Mueller, J Simplicity and spook: Terrorism and the dynamics of threat exaggeration International Studies Perspectives, 2005
  • Pieper, WJ Exaggeration, puffery, inferential beliefs and deception in advertising - 1976 - University of South Carolina.
  • Sperling, OE Exaggeration as a Defense. Psychoanal Q., 32:553-548. (1963).