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We are more likely to lie over the phone than in an email

By Jeff Hancock, Jennifer Thom-Santelli and Thompson Ritchie - posted Tuesday, 13 July 2004

The daily use of a variety of communication technologies, such as email, instant messaging, and the mobile phone, is now a fact of life for an increasing number of people, both at work and in their personal life. At work these technologies are relied upon for a wide range of tasks, such as collaborating with colleagues, reporting to superiors and communicating with customers. At home they are used to stay in touch with family and friends, and for involvement in local communities.

As communication technologies become more ubiquitous in our daily interactions, an important question is raised: how does the design of these technologies affect the phenomenon of lying? Lying is an important, and frequent, part of everyday social interactions.

Research from social psychology suggests as many as one third of typical daily interactions involve some form of deception. This can be defined as a “deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue.” DePaulo and her colleagues, for example, have observed that university students report telling about two lies a day, while non-student populations report about one a day.


The types of lies observed in these studies vary, from small “white” lies, in which inconsequential lies are told to be tactful or polite (such as saying “I love your haircut” when in fact you do not), to more serious lies (such as denying an affair).

How does the increased use of communication technologies affect these kinds of deceptions in our day-to-day social interactions? The design of various technologies creates very different communicative environments that may have important implications for lying behaviour. The telephone, for example, allows people in different physical locations to communicate with vocal and prosodic cues intact, while text-based media such as email and instant messaging, eliminate or distort nonverbal channels. We asked whether speakers were more or less likely to lie on the phone, in an email, or during an instant messaging exchange than they are face-to-face. Are different types of lies more likely to be told in one medium than in others?

We have examined deception in the three most commonly used daily communication media, the telephone, email and instant messaging, in an effort to determine how the design of these technologies affects lying behaviour.

Participants were students drawn from upper-level Communications courses at a north-eastern American university, and they all participated for course credit. There were 28 subjects: 13 males, 17 females, with an average age of 21. They reported lying about 1.6 times a day on average, and about one out of every four of their interactions involved a lie, replicating DePaulo’s original estimates, which indicated that students lied 1.9 times a day on average, and that a third of their social interactions involved some deception.

The primary objective of our study, however, was to determine the effect of the design of different communication media on lying behaviour during everyday social interactions. Although the total number of lies was greatest in the face-to-face setting, the highest proportion of lies occurred in telephone conversations, with 37 per cent of phone interactions involving some deception, significantly higher than lies in face-to-face conversations (27 per cent).

Two prominent theories suggest that a single underlying dimension influences the probability of deception. Media Richness Theory predicts speakers will choose the richest media, (specifically face to face) to lie most frequently. However, we found this was not the case; telephone interactions involved significantly more lies than face-to-face interactions, suggesting that a media’s richness is not the primary factor operating in lying behaviour across media.


The Social Distance Hypothesis argues that speakers will choose less-rich media when engaging in deception in order to avoid the discomfort associated with lying. Contrary to the Social Distance Hypothesis, in our study significantly fewer lies were reported in the least rich media, email, and no difference was observed between instant messaging and face-to-face. It seems the social distance of communication technology, and the relief from the discomfort of being deceptive that it may provide, does not predict everyday lying behaviour.

Both theories are overly simplistic. Communication media can be differentiated along a number of design features that are not captured by either richness or social distance.

Our model predicts that according to the degree in which a medium 1) allows for synchronous interaction, 2) is recordless, and 3) is distributed (that is, the parties are not in the same place), the greater the frequency of lying that should occur in that medium.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Authors

Dr Jeff Hancock is an Assistant Professor in Cornell University’s Department of Communication. His main interest is human communication and language use, especially computer-mediated interactions. He is also interested in non-literal forms of language, such as verbal irony.

Jennifer Thom-Santelli is a graduate student in Cornell University’s Department of Communication.

Thompson Ritchie is a graduate student at Cornell University’s Department of Communication.

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