Study: We All Tell Lies Over the Phone

ByABC News

Feb. 25, 2004 — -- You're supposed to go to a business meeting tonight, but you've got a hot date you would rather keep, so how are you most likely to lie to your boss about why you won't be at the meeting?

In a face to face conversation? Or on the telephone? Or by e-mail where the boss can't see you, or hear the inflections in your voice, or even be certain it's really you who's spouting that fib?

The weapon of choice, it turns out, is the telephone. People lie more often over the telephone than in any other form of communication, according to new research out of Cornell University. And if you fire off an e-mail to the boss, you're probably going to tell her you never wanted to go to that boring meeting anyway, because you're far more likely to tell the truth in an e-mail than in a face to face meeting, or over the phone, or through instant messaging.

Psychologist Jeff Hancock, an assistant professor of communications at Cornell, has been studying how and why we lie for some time now, and his research supports a growing body of evidence showing that we humans lie all the time. But that's not necessarily cause for alarm.

"Lies aren't all bad," Hancock says. "A lot of the time they are benign, and a lot of the time they are beneficial," to someone else if not ourselves.

Most often, we lie because it just makes our lives easier, according to Brandeis University's Leonard Saxe, who notes that society has conditioned us to shade the truth.

If you're late for work, and you tell the boss you overslept, you're probably going to get into more trouble that if you tell a lie, blaming your tardiness on heavy traffic.

So we do it all the time. Various studies show at least a fourth of our daily interactions with others involve lying, usually about something rather minor. Most often, we lie to avoid conflict, or to spare someone else's feelings.

But Hancock and two of his graduate students, Jennifer Thom-Santelli and Thompson Ritchie, set out to identify the form of communication that lends itself best to lying. They asked 30 students to keep track of their social communications for seven days, noting when they lied, and how the lie was transmitted. The reports were submitted anonymously to reduce the chance that the participants would lie about their lying in an effort to protect their own images.

And they fessed up to lying about 1.6 times per day, on average, during an average of 6.11 social communications. So they fibbed about a fourth of the time.

The clear winner in the tally was the telephone, which was involved in 37 percent of the deception. Face-to-face conversations included lies 27 percent of the time, and instant messages came in at 21 percent.

But e-mail turned out to be a model of integrity, accounting for only 14 percent of the lies.

That may be a bit surprising, but Hancock says it shouldn't be. It's easier to lie over the telephone because the other person can't see our expressions, or know we are dressed for the beach instead of the office. And most importantly, the conversation is unlikely to be recorded.

E-mail, by contrast, leaves a paper trail, Hancock says.

"It's recordable, whereas phone and face to face conversations aren't [usually,]" he notes. "It can also be forwarded very easily, along with your credibility, and that would argue against lying in e-mail."

Of course, it's also easy to disguise your identity in e-mail, but college students who are communicating with acquaintances usually have no reason to do that.

Incidently, college students are not necessarily like all the rest of us, being subjected to social tortures like dating, so they may be inclined to lie a bit more. Another study by Hancock supports that, showing that older persons also lie often, and they do it most often over the phone, but less frequently than college students.

Even after leaving college and assuming more routine lives, we continue to lie frequently, according to various studies.

Psychologist Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts conducted one study in which 60 percent of the participants lied, usually two or three times, during a 10 minute conversation. What they didn't know was that their lies were being captured by a hidden video camera.

Interestingly, that study showed no difference between men and women in the frequency of lying, but it did find a difference in subject matter.

"Women were more likely to lie to make the person they were talking to feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better," Feldman says.

In an earlier study, Feldman found that good liars tend to be more popular. Not only do they avoid hurting other's feelings, they have mastered certain social skills or they wouldn't be successful liars.

It isn't always easy to tell a lie, which brings us back to the telephone.

"When we lie, we experience discomfort, and we do as much as we can to reduce discomfort," says Cornell's Hancock. One way to do that is to use a "more socially distant media" to transmit our untruth. That nasty device known as the telephone lends itself well to that. Nobody can see us when we tell that fib, and there's no paper trail.

It's a dream machine for everyone who, from time to time, has to tell a little white lie. Only to protect someone else, of course.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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