Are people lying more since the rise of social media and smartphones?
Technology has given people more ways to connect, but has it also given them more opportunities to lie?
Social psychologists and communication specialists have long questioned not only who lies the most, but also where people tend to lie the most – that is, in person or through some other form of communication.
A seminal 2004 study was among the first to study the link between disappointment rates and technology. Since then, the ways we communicate have changed – fewer phone calls and more social media posts, for example – and I wanted to see how past results have held up.
The link between deception and technology
In 2004, communication researcher Jeff Hancock and his colleagues asked 28 students to report the number of social interactions they had via face-to-face communication, phone, instant messaging and email over the seven days. Students also reported the number of times they lied in each social interaction.
The results suggest that people told the most lies through social interaction over the phone. The less numerous were informed by e-mail.
The results aligned with a framework that Hancock called the “feature-based model. “According to this model, specific aspects of a technology – whether people can communicate with each other transparently, whether messages are fleeting, and whether communicators are distant – predict where people tend to lie the most.
In Hancock’s study, the greatest number of social interaction lies happened through the technology with all these features: the phone. The smallest number occurred via email, where people could not communicate synchronously and messages were logged.
The Hancock study, revisited
When Hancock conducted his study, only students from a few selected universities could create a Facebook account. The iPhone was still in its infancy, a highly confidential project dubbed “Project Violet. “
What would his results look like almost 20 years later?
In a new study, I recruited a larger group of participants and studied interactions from several forms of technology. A total of 250 people recorded their social interactions and the number of interactions with a lie over seven days, via face-to-face communication, social media, phone, texting, video chat and email.
As in the Hancock study, people told the most lies through social interaction on synchronous, non-recording media and when communicators were distant: by phone or video chat. They told the fewest lies through social interaction via email. Interestingly, however, the differences between the forms of communication were small. Differences between participants – how much people varied in their lying tendencies – were more predictive of deception rates than differences between media.
Despite changes in the way people communicate over the past two decades – as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people socialize – people seem to lie consistently and in agreement with the characteristics-based model.
There are several possible explanations for these results, although more work is needed to understand exactly why different media lead to different rates of lies. Some media may be better deception facilitators that others. Certain media – the phone, video chat – can make cheating easier or cheaper for a social relationship if caught.
Rates of deception can also differ from technology to technology, as people use certain forms of technology for certain social relationships. For example, people can only send emails to their business colleagues, while video chat may be better suited to more personal relationships.
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For me, there are two key points to remember.
First, there are, overall, slight differences in lie rates across media. An individual’s tendency to lie is more important than whether someone is emailing or talking on the phone.
Second, there is a low rate of lies across the board. Most people are honest – a premise in line with truth-fault theory, which suggests that most people report being honest most of the time and that there are only a few prolific liars in a population.
Since 2004, social media has become a privileged place for interact with other people. Yet a misperception persists that communication online or through technology, as opposed to in person, leads to social interactions that are inferior in quantity and quality.
People often believe that just because we use technology to interact, honesty is harder to come by and users are not served well.
Not only is this perception wrong, it is also not supported by empirical evidence. The belief that lying is rampant in the digital age just doesn’t match the data.