Study shows people are more honest online, less so on the phone

Research by Cornell professor Jeff Hancock has shown that people are more honest when communicating electronically than they are in person, citing the paper trails that emails and text messages leave as a check on our penchant for deception.

According to Hancock’s research, we have developed new ways to lie that are exclusive to digital communication: We lie to shield us from the constant availability our phones and computers provide us (“Sorry I didn’t text you back, my phone died”), and we lie to embellish our public image (using a fake name to write a positive review of your own book). But since, unlike in verbal communication, the words we say online don’t vanish into thin air, we run a greater risk of getting caught when we lie electronically, and are therefore less likely to do so when penning an email, for example:

For in-person communication, most cultures look a person in the eye to gauge if he or she is lying. Big mistake. Forty-five years of research prove that “humans cannot rely at all on eyes for deception,” Hancock said. “The average deception detection rate is 54 percent.” Reliance on facts, now easier to check via the Internet than ever before, he said, is the best way to determine truth.

And while in-person communication is unreliable, telephone communication is even less so. With no visual or in-text mechanism to verify what is being said, phones provide us our most convenient way to sidestep the truth.

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Internet via Shutterstock.

While this is all good to know while chatting on Facebook or commenting on AMERICAblog, this information is also useful for the increasing number of people who are aggregating online information and are wondering how accurate it might be. Hancock’s analysis of Twitter usage during the Libyan revolution, for example, showed an ability to predict with 85 percent accuracy when a large-scale protest was about to take place given the volume of certain keywords. If individuals are honest online, the crowd is even more honest.

Americans spend over fifteen hours per month on Facebook alone, and countless more hours on other Web sites. There are plenty of reasons to be troubled that we spend so much time online, but it’s good to know that as we post more, at least we lie less.

You can watch Hancock’s TEDx Talk here.


Jon Green is a senior Political Science major and Public Policy concentrator at Kenyon College. He is also the co-editor in chief of the Kenyon Observer, the school's student-run political journal. Jon worked as a field organizer for Tom Perriello in 2010 and recently returned to AMERICAblog from the Obama campaign, where he was a Deputy Regional Field Director based in Hampton, Virginia. He writes on a variety of topics but pays particularly close attention to elections, political psychology and the use of social media. Jon on Google+, and his .

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  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    This was a campus environment, so we used terminals logged into the CS mainframes. The definition of ‘online’ was very different back then. Nevertheless, the results were consistent with what’s continuing to be found now.

  • perljammer

    You were surveying online interviews in the early 1980s? I’m interested in what your sources were, as CompuServe became publicly available in 1983, and AOL and Prodigy, not until the early ’90s.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    This actually isn’t a new finding at all. I worked as a research assistant for work-study in the early 1980s in my college’s Sociology department, and in fact helped conduct a survey testing the differences between online, phone, and in-person interviews.

    Besides increased honesty in the online results, we also found people were more willing to explain their opinions at length than verbally, and that on Likert scales (like when you ask someone to rate from 1 to 10 how much they like or dislike something) respondents were much more likely to express extreme sentiments. That is, providing values farther from the center, flattening the expected bell curve data.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    I can believe it, I am a usually calm and considered guy, until I find Troll bait on Americablog and let er rip.

  • dula

    Remember the days when you could just say you weren’t home all day and so couldn’t check your messages on the answering machine until midnight. It was always too late to call them back. It used to be so easy to avoid people.

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