Thursday, 8 April 2010

People lie more in email than when using pen and paper

Emails feel so transient, so disembodied, that we're more tempted to lie when sending them compared with writing with pen and paper. That's according to Charles Naquin and colleagues who tested the honesty of students and managers as they played financial games.

Forty-eight graduate business students were presented with an imaginary $89 kitty and had to choose how much they'd tell their partner was in the kitty, and how much of the kitty to share with their partner. Crucially, some participants shared this information by email, others by pen and paper. You guessed it - those who shared the info by email were more likely to lie about the kitty size (92 per cent of them did vs. 63 per cent of the pen and paper group), and they were also more unfair in how they shared the money. Participants in the email group also said they felt more justified in misrepresenting the amount of money to their partner.

A follow-up study ramped up the ecological validity. One hundred and seventy-seven full-time managers took part in a group financial game. Participants formed teams of three with each member pretending to be the manager of a science project negotiating for grant money. This game was played with real money, the players all knew each other, and any lies would be revealed afterwards. Once again, players who shared information by email were more likely to lie and cheat than were players who shared information by pen and paper.

Charles Naquin's team said their results chime with previous research showing, for example, that peer performance reviews are more negative when conducted online rather than on paper. 'Moving paper tasks online either within or across organisational boundaries should be undertaken with caution,' they said. For example: 'Taxes using the increasingly popular e-filing system could be even more fraught with deception than the traditional paper forms.'

ResearchBlogging.orgNaquin, C., Kurtzberg, T., & Belkin, L. (2010). The finer points of lying online: E-mail versus pen and paper. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95 (2), 387-394 DOI: 10.1037/a0018627

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't there previous research showing that more would lie by phone call/speaking, than email, due presumably to the papertrail?

Anonymous said...

OK, but why?

Unknown said...

Anonymous II: The researchers said that participants using email felt there was more justification for lying than did the paper and pencil participants. They also surmised that email feels more transient and that people feel less restrained when using it. Clearly more research is needed to test these kinds of explanations.

Unknown said...

Anonymous I: Yes, research has shown that telephone lying is more common than face-to-face lying or email lying. The authors say the current research is novel because it pitches two modes of communication with the same output (written text) against each other, rather than pitching spoken word against written word.

Graham Jones said...

As ever, one piece of research says one thing, while another has different findings. A few studies have previously found that people are MORE honest online than they are offline.

Ben said...

They appear to have ignored the possibility of conditioning here: as a trend, emails tend to be used for everyday tasks and letters tend to be used for formal tasks, of these two behaviours which would we suspect would draw the most dishonest behaviour? The researchers have not sufficiently isolated their conclusion, as is unfortunately so common with psychological studies, bolstering the view of psychology as a soft science.

Similarly, were we to ask participants to carry out this task face to face with one condition wearing a suit and tie and the other condition wearing informal wear we would expect to see the formal wear condition show more honesty due to the associations these clothes hold. This is not because of anything inherently bad about informal wear or inherently good about formal wear, as the researchers have tried to claim is the case with email, this is because formal wear primes a different behaviour to informal wear.

Again, were one group to carry out the task in a run down office building and the other to carry out the task at Yale (as with Milgram (1976)) we would expect to see the Yale group show more honesty. All of this is due to association and it should have been eliminated as a potential cause in this piece of research, though admittedly that might be hard to do.

JamesR404 said...

Agree with Ben on this one.

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