People Are More Likley to Lie When Communicating Online

Did that “young successful entrepreneur” you met on e-Harmony turn out to be a 40-year-old American Idol memorabilia salesman? Sorry, science can’t explain your inability to properly screen people. However, for those who often come across less blatant online exaggerations of the truth, you might take some comfort in new research showing that communicating online does increase the propensity to be dishonest.

This study investigated frequency of deception when getting to know a stranger face to face or using computer-mediated technologies. Same-sex pairs of undergraduate participants engaged in 15-min conversations using e-mail, instant messenger, or speaking face to face. Afterward, target participants reviewed transcripts of their conversations and recorded inaccuracies. The results showed increased deception in the computer conditions, compared to the face-to-face condition, with the most lies found in e-mail messages.

The authors attribute the results to “deindividuation” — the tendency for individuals to lose their sense of evaluation or adherence to social norms (e.g. truth-telling) when given anonymity.

As more and more social interactions (e.g. romantic partner selection, employee hiring) begin to take place online, this kind of thing could have a larger and larger effect. Still, it’s unlikely that the efficiency gains from conducting interactions online don’t vastly outweigh the losses from increased dishonesty. It will be interesting to see if the differences between online and face-to-face communication begin to grow or shrink over time as online interaction becomes more ingrained in society.

Although the results of the study are very broad, one specific application may involve public opinion surveys.  The anonymity of an online survey is unlikely to make a Rick Perry supporter claim he’s going to vote for Barack Obama, but in terms of policy questions that ask for Likert Scale-type answers, an online format may make people more likely to learn toward overly altruistic answers (more help for the poor) or answers that support token American values (no taxes ever).
Zimbler, M., & Feldman, R. (2011). Liar, Liar, Hard Drive on Fire: How Media Context Affects Lying Behavior Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41 (10), 2492-2507 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00827.x


4 Responses to People Are More Likley to Lie When Communicating Online

  1. rightlyknightly says:

    Like your article – but isn’t it a bit of NSS (No Shit Sherlock)? Just based on the medium used?

    If I were to meet you face to face you’d see a personable guy chatting and explaining this in a friendly manner. What you read are cold words which are often easily misunderstood. The method of communicating via writing to people you never meet will always lead to exageration of ‘undefined’ features (such as how good you are at work, what you do with your free time etc) whereas ‘defined’ features which are easy to explain are less lied about – for example I voted Lib Dem in the last UK general election – fact-fact-fact. I’m a prize winning author – lie-lie-lie (but hopefully one day truth).

    Will follow your blog in future & I’m totally prepared for what I’ve just said to get flamed…

  2. Neuroskeptic says:

    I disagree with this study. I never lie online – one of the many reasons why I was voted President Of The Internet last year.

  3. I wonder if this is why Facebook doesnt have any kind of dating type app. I have read before that it is considered the most honest site on the web.

    I think its human nature to lie in a lot of cases even in the real world. I dont know the number but its a huge percentage that lie on their resumes as well.

  4. This is hardly news. When people chat online most of them figure that they will never meet the person they’re talking to. Therefore they can indulge in a fantasy of being more or different than they really are while believing that they are impressing the person they are talking to (who is probably also lying or exaggerating themselves.) As long as all of this remains in the realm of fantasy, probably no real harm done. However, the danger is when one or the other believes the lies and then tries to act on the fantasy.

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