The Impact of Communication Technology on Lying Behavior

September 16, 2006 at 2:11 am 9 comments

Lying is a frequent, and sometimes necessary part of our lives. A study finds that 26% a person’s of overall daily interactions involved some sort of deception (1.6 lies/day on average).

But how does technology impact the number of lies we tell? Researchers asked 30 volunteers to record their daily interactions and lies told during the interactions.

Four modes of communication were investigated:

Phone: 37% of phone calls involved deception.

Face-to-Face: 27% of face-to-face conversations involved deception.

Instant Messaging: 21% of IM conversations involved deception.

Email: 14% of emails involved deception.

Two existing theories fail to explain the difference in lying frequency among technologies.

The Media Richness Theory says that people will lie more if the medium of communication is richer. However, the data contradicts this because lies during phone conversations occur more often than lies in face-to-face communication.

The Social Distance Hypothesis claims the opposite — people prefer to lie when the medium of communication is less rich. This is because it’s more difficult to detect, and because lying makes them nervous. However, this is also contradicted by the results since face-to-face lies occur more so than lies over email.

The paper presents an alternative theory — the amount of lying is affected by whether the medium of communication is asynchronous, recorded, or if the persons are in the same physical location. Phone conversations feature none of the above, so lying is most likely to occur. On the other hand, email is only distributed, so lies happen least frequently over email.

However, aren’t the functions of each medium somewhat different? Email is more likely to be used to make announcements or detailed plans. It would seem that this type of communication is unlikely to contain a lie. Instant messaging is often used for quick exchange of information and so there is also not a lot of room for lying there. The study also mentioned but didn’t take into account the difference in length of communication between mediums, which would likely skew the results. Hence, it would seem that the likelihood of lying is less discrete than suggested by the paper and instead influenced by a wide range of factors.

One other finding from the study is that lies were more likely to be premeditated when over email; this may be somewhat obvious since email is the only asynchronous form of communication investigated, giving the liar more time to perfect the lie.

Hancock, J. T., Thom-Santelli, J., & Ritchie, T. (2004). Deception and Design: The Impact of Communication Technology on Lying Behavior. Proceedings from CHI ’04: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 129-134. [PDF]


Entry filed under: Communication, Internet, Lies and Deception, Psychology.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barry  |  September 18, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    I suggest that the persistence of the communication is the key to the truthfulness of the communication. Email persists over time — and can be circulated to others, greatly increasing the likelihood that deception will be exposed. IM can similarly persist. However, phone and face-to-face conversations have no persistence whatsoever and fact-checking will depend solely on the parties’ memories, thus increasing the probability of deceit.

  • 2. Greg  |  September 18, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    Might be interesting to investigate correlations between the intimacy of the communication and the need to lie. For example, verbal conversations via the phone, face to face, and even IM might contain more intimate topics than those held via email. Perhaps people feel more compelled to lie about things closer to them. Call it the “Intimacy Theory”.

  • 3. Steve  |  September 28, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    Email is usually stored and can be retrieved easily. Thus if the lie is discovered an email would be fairly conclusive evidence. Phone and face to face conversations tend to be one off instances and so if the lie is detected at a later date the liar can use “that’s not what I meant” or even a flat denial to reduce the risk of being labelled a lair. Wouldn’t you be more careful what you said if you knew every phone call you made was being recorded?

  • 4. Beppo  |  October 13, 2006 at 11:07 am

    I disagree with the opening statement :

    > Lying is a frequent, and sometimes necessary part of our lives.

    It is not “necessary” — it’s just convenient. And maybe it’s “politically correct”, but it’s morally and ethically wrong. I realize people want to throw absolutes out, so they can justify their behavior. But I suspect most of us do not want to be lied to, so we know deep inside it’s something that shouldn’t be done.

    Also, isn’t 30 volunteers an extremely small sample set?

  • 5. Otso Koski  |  October 18, 2006 at 2:00 am

    Various aspects in the definitions of lying will make this conversation even more interesting. For example a “weaker” mind might need a longer period of time to accept all the details of a commonly shared reality and thus could suffer a serious emotional trauma if provided “with all of the aspects” in certain situations.
    Truthfulness appears to just open up awareness a little bit faster than lying, for some people it might be too fast. Would you call restricting information generally a lie? Where do you draw the line when it comes to choosing or manipulating content and maybe taking the intention of the “modification” into account?
    From an ethical point of view one should probably be more worried about lying that does not intent to help or take care of someone and instead manipulates a mind to behave in a way that is profitable for the “liar”.
    Especially when lying involves a financial aspect it seems to fall into the category of fear of loss and fear getting caught on steeling. This is when the detectability of untruthfulness becomes interesting. “Get it in writing” is a saying that describes the lack of trust in an unwritten communication. “Hearing” only half of a conversation would corrupt the understanding of a potential witness standing by making a phone call the number one on the list.

  • 6. markselby  |  December 26, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    your site is great

    thank you

  • 7. suggester  |  December 27, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    Might I suggest that the lying is based on the SITUATION.
    Phone and face-to-face may pose immediate obligatory responces, while unexpected calls to obligation are less common over email and IM. Furthermore, the applications of IM an email are usually not in the same personal context. Motive is the key ingredient here: the necessity of lying in an IM conversation is minimal. Think about it: Who do you usually speak to via IM, and what are usually the topics?

  • 8. Beppo  |  January 11, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    While I agree that a lie can seem to “help” someone deal with an unfavorable fact, I still don’t see that it is right. Deceiving someone corrupts their reality. We should live in truth & reality, not fantasy.

    For example, if a female friend gets a bad hair cut/style and asks how it looks, most people will tell her it looks cute or fine, even if they don’t think so. Their lies will make her feel better, but she’s believing a lie, and it would actually be better for her to know the truth so she can do something about it, instead of thinking it’s great while the people around her think it’s bad.

    In response to comment #5, there are times you don’t want to tell everybody everything. And obviously you can use such methods to deceive someone without technically lying. But I believe it’s wrong even to deceive someone. It’s not fair to them, and we will have to answer for it.

    Also, lying and deceiving can be a way of covering up our faults and not being accountable. Ideally we wouldn’t do things that need covering up, but when we mess up, we should “take our medicine” (when applicable).

  • 9. Sakura Kinomoto  |  October 21, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    I think it’s largely a matter of what the topic of discussion is. In email or IM conversations, I’m typically either making plans and scheduling things, or just idle chatter. There’s little reason to lie about anything there. On the phone, I might lie about what I’m doing if I’m in a hurry and need to finish the conversation, and the discussion tends to be about more personal things that I might not want to be entirely honest about. In a face-to-face conversation, I might omit or change some details simply because I don’t want to try to explain them, because I’m not very good at that and I don’t think the other person will really understand them, so a little white lie about their nature avoids a long awkward conversation.

    The length of the conversation and the magnitude of the lie are two important factors I don’t see mentioned here. A longer conversation is more likely to contain a lie, and a small variation from the truth is quite different from completely making something up.


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