Technology has given people more ways to connect, but has it also given them more opportunities to lie?
You can write a white lie to your friend to go out to dinner, exaggerate your height on a dating profile to look more attractive, or make excuses to your boss over email to save face. can.
Social psychologists and communication scholars have long identified not only where most people lie, but where people lie most – that is, in person or through some other communication medium.
A seminal 2004 study was one of the first to examine the relationship between deception rates and technology. Since then, the way we communicate has changed – fewer phone calls and more social media messages, for example – and I wanted to see how well the earlier results were.
The link between deception and technology
Back in 2004, communication researcher Jeff Hancock and his colleagues had 28 students report the number of social interactions via face-to-face communication, phone, instant messaging and email in seven days. The students also reported how many times they lied in each social interaction.
The results suggested that people lied the most per social interaction over the phone. The lowest was told via email.
The findings are in line with the Hancock framework called a “feature-based model”. According to this model, specific aspects of technology—whether people can communicate back and forth seamlessly, whether messages are fleeting and whether communicators are distant—predict that people lie the most.
In Hancock’s study, of all these features lied most per social interaction through technology: the phone. The lowest occurred over email, where people could not communicate synchronously and messages were recorded.
Hancock Study, Revisited
When Hancock conducted his studies, only students from select universities could create Facebook accounts. The iPhone was in its early stages of development, a highly secretive project called “Project Purple”.
What will his results look like after almost 20 years?
In a new study, I recruited a larger group of participants and studied interactions with more forms of technology. A total of 250 people recorded their number of social interactions and interactions with lies over seven days over face-to-face communication, social media, phone, texting, video chat and email.
As in Hancock’s study, people lied most per social interaction on media that were synchronous and recordless and when the communicators were away: on the phone or over video chat. He lied the fewest per social interaction via email. Interestingly, however, the difference in the forms of communication was small. Differences between participants – how much people differed in their propensity to lie – were more predictive of deception rates than differences between media.
Despite changes in the way people communicate over the past two decades – the way the COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s socialization – people lie systematically and in alignment with feature-based models.
There are several possible explanations for these results, although more work is needed to understand why different media lead to different lie rates. It is possible that some media are better masters of deception than others. Some media – phone, video chat – can make deception easier or less expensive when caught.
Deception rates can also vary across technology as people use certain forms of technology for certain social interactions. For example, people may only email their professional colleagues, while video chat may be better for more personal relationships.
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For me, there are two major takeaways.
First, there are, overall, small differences in the rates of lying across media. A person’s tendency to lie matters more than whether a person is emailing or talking on the phone.
Second, the rate of lying is low across the board. Most people are honest – a premise consistent with the truth-default theory, which states that most people report being honest most of the time and that only a few in the population are liars.
Since 2004, social media has become the primary place to interact with other people. Yet a common misconception persists that communication online or through technology, as opposed to in-person, leads to social interactions that are less in quantity and quality.
People often assume that just because we use technology to communicate, honesty is hard to come by and that users are not well served.
This notion is not only misguided, but it is also unsupported by empirical evidence. The belief that lying is prevalent in the digital age does not match the data.