Jeff Hancock of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, asked 30 students to keep a communications diary for a week. In it they noted the number of conversations or email exchanges they had lasting more than 10 minutes, and confessed to how many lies they told. Hancock then worked out the number of lies per conversation for each medium. He found that lies made up 14 per cent of emails, 21 per cent of instant messages, 27 per cent of face-to-face interactions and a whopping 37 per cent of phone calls.
His results, to be presented at the conference on human-computer interaction in Vienna, Austria, in April have surprised psychologists. Some expected emailers to be the biggest liars, reasoning that because deception makes people uncomfortable, the detachment of emailing would make it easier to lie. Others expected people to lie more in face-to-face exchanges because we are most practised at that form of communication. But Hancock says it is also crucial whether a conversation is being recorded and could be re-read, and whether it occurs in real time.
People appear to be afraid to lie when they know the communication could later be used to hold them to account, he says. This is why fewer lies appear in email than on the phone. People are also more likely to lie in real time- in an instant message or phone call, say- than if they have time to think of a response, says Hancock.
He found many lies are spontaneous responses to an unexpected demand, such as: "Do you like my dress?" Hancock hopes his research will help companies work out the best ways for their employees to communicate. For instance, the phone might be the best medium for sales where employees are encouraged to stretch the truth. But given his results, work appraisals, where honesty is a priority, might be best done using email.
Celeste Biever, Boston
Tel: 617 558 4919
New Scientist issue: 14 February 2004
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