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Is lying in Internet chat rooms or e-mail more common than lying face-to-face? Or over the phone? As this ScienCentral News video reports, psychologists at Cornell want to find out when people are more likely to lie.
Pants on Fire
Are people more likely to lie when they are communicating face to face, on the phone, in instant messages (IMs) or in e-mail? That's what Jeff Hancock, an experimental psychologist at Cornell University, wanted to find out.
For seven days, Hancock and his team had 30 students keep track of their social interactions— and all of their lies. Social interactions were defined as any conversation with another person that lasted ten minutes or longer for face-to-face, telephone or IMs, or any e-mail that took ten minutes or more to write or compose.
The students were involved in a total of 1,198 social interactions and 310 lies. On average, the students engaged in 6.11 social communications and 1.6 lies per day, which means that about one-quarter of their social communications involved lies.
Here's what Hancock found: "People lied the least often in e-mail and most often on the telephone, and IMs and face-to-face were about the same in the middle," he says. "The actual numbers were 37% of the interactions over the phone involved a lie, 27% face-to-face, 21% IM and 14% over e-mail."
Hancock says there are three features that make different forms of communication better or worse for lying: synchronicity (whether messages are exchanged in real time), recordability (whether the interaction is recorded in some way), and co-presence (whether or not the speaker and the listener are in the same physical space).
Since most lies emerge spontaneously in conversation, Hancock says the phone lends itself to lying more readily than e-mail. "A lot of times we'll think of the Internet as a very deceptive place where you can say and do whatever you want, because you're anonymous and things like that; whereas this research suggests that sometimes on the Internet we may in fact be more honest."
"When you are talking to someone face-to-face or on the phone, the pressure is on," says Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who has studied deception for over twenty years. "If you get caught in a difficult place, there is no time to stop and think. Often, people will tell a quick and convenient lie— it can be the first thing that comes to mind. It's an easy out."
Still, Hancock was surprised by the results. "Some psychologists believe that as humans, one of our main goals is to reduce discomfort, and because lying makes us uncomfortable, we should use media to distance ourselves from our target, which would reduce the discomfort that we have," he says. "Now the telephone makes sense in one way, in that it is less close than face-to-face where you're in the same room with the person. But according to that kind of thinking, you would lie most in e-mail, which is even more distant than the telephone, so that's why some social psychologists were a bit surprised by these findings."
Hancock did find that more experienced e-mail users tended to lie in e-mail more often. "E-mail is different," says DePaulo. "It is a medium of great possibilities. You can stop and think about how to answer a difficult question without lying. Or, you can take the time to try to construct a more effective lie! Research on lying on e-mail is only just beginning, so we will not know conclusive answers to these questions for a while."
This research will be presented at the Computer-Human Interaction Meeting in Vienna, Austria on April 29, 2004. It will be published in the April, 2004 issue of the Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Human Interaction. It was funded by the Cornell University Hatch Grant.