Phone Fibbing

Phone Fibbing

On April Fool's Day, you're probably extra-careful not to believe everything you hear. But what about catching lies during the rest of the year? According to a recent study, some kinds of communication are more trustworthy than others.


Telling lies over the telephone. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Do you consider yourself an honest person? Well, research has shown that most people lie once or twice a day. The lies might be small ones—like telling your friend his hideous haircut looks good—or they could be bigger ones, like calling in sick when you're actually headed to the beach.

A new study done by Jeff Hancock and his colleagues at Cornell University shows that people's likelihood of lying depends on the communication technology they're using.


We actually found that lying was least often done in e-mail. The place where people lied the most was on the telephone, and people lied in about 37 percent of their phone conversations. And face-to-face interactions and instant messaging interactions were about the same, around 21 to 25 percent.

Hancock says people find it easy to lie over the phone for three reasons: there's generally no record kept of the call, unlike e-mail; the person you're talking to isn't right in front of you, like in a face-to-face conversation; and it happens in real time, so those little spontaneous lies are more likely to occur.

He says establishing these baseline rates of lying for different media could help in designing software to detect lying online—a boon for catching cyber criminals. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

Over the past century and a half, humans have developed an astounding number of new ways to communicate, including the telegraph, the telephone, the fax machine, video conferencing, e-mail, instant messaging, and the World Wide Web. For many of us, a large percentage of our day-to-day interactions are conducted through these technologies. How have these technologies changed the way we interact with one another? That's the larger question this study set out to address.

Lying, of course, is nothing new. Humans have almost certainly been lying since we invented language, and as the Cornell researchers point out, most of us lie once or twice a day on average. Many of these lies aren't harmful, like the "white lies" you tell to spare someone's feelings. The question is, do communication technologies make us lie more or less than we would if we were speaking face-to-face?

The answer depends on which technology you're talking about. In their experiment, Hancock and his colleagues asked people to keep a journal of their interpersonal interactions over the course of a week. (Only interactions that lasted at least 10 minutes were recorded.) So the subjects had to keep track of whom they communicated with throughout the course of the day, how they communicated, and whether or not they told a lie during that interaction. The researchers then compared the number of times people lied with the number of times they interacted in each medium. For example, if a person had 100 face-to-face interactions during the week, and lied during 15 of those interactions, their rate of lying for face-to-face communication would be 15 percent.

The researchers believe three factors in a technology influence your probability to lie: 1) synchrony, or the degree to which the communication happens in real time, 2) co-presence, or whether or not you and the other person are in the same room, and 3) recordability, or whether or not a record is kept of the interaction. Lies are most likely in technologies that are synchronous (because it's easier to lie spontaneously), but neither co-present nor recordable (because being watched or recorded makes you more honest).

Looking at these criteria, the telephone is obviously tailor-made for lying. It's synchronous, but not co-present, and it usually isn't recorded. And people lie in about 37 percent of their phone conversations. Face-to-face interactions are synchronous and not recorded either, but they are co-present, which makes it a little harder to lie. Instant messaging also scores one out of three: it's synchronous and not co-present, but it's easily recorded. And people do, in fact, lie less often in face-to-face or instant messaging: about 21 to 25 percent of the time. E-mail, the most honest of communication technologies, has two out of three barriers to lying: it's not synchronous and it's automatically recorded (although it's not co-present). Hancock's team found that e-mail contained lies only about 14 percent of the time.

You're probably thinking: What do you mean, people are honest over e-mail? What about terrorists who send coded messages over the Internet, or adults who pose as children in order to kidnap or molest them? Those are just the types of people that this study might help identify. Law enforcement agencies would like to nab criminals who use e-mail and the Internet to plan their crimes, and one possible way to do it is to develop software that can spot possible lies. But in order for the software to be effective, it needs to know how often most non-criminals lie. That way, it can look out for users who seem to be way over their expected quota.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How can a technology make it harder or easier for someone to lie? What three criteria have the researchers established?
  2. Do the reseachers' findings match your personal experience or your instinctive beliefs? Why or why not?
  3. Can you think of a type of communication technology that would contain all three possible obstacles to lying? In other words, one that is not synchronous, but that is co-present and easily recorded?
  4. How might these results apply to the world of business? Under what circumstances would a business or organization want to use e-mail to communicate? When would the telephone be advantageous? Is it ethical to deliberately choose a form of communication because it makes lying or exaggeration easier?

For Educators

Natural Born Liars, a feature by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, covers the evolution of human lying as well as technologies for spotting possible liars.

The National Geographic News article, Heat-Detecting Sensor May be Able to Detect Lying, looks at security systems that could use heat sensors to help identify liars.

Technology at Home, by PBS, is an interactive activity that helps students discover when common technologies first appeared in the home.

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