Study: More People Comfortable with Lying in E-mails

By Aliah D. Wright Aug 19, 2008
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People are more likely to lie in an e-mail than they are in handwritten letters, according to a study presented by researchers recently at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Anaheim, Calif.

The study, “Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimate Bargaining,” revealed that people are considerably more willing to be dishonest via e-mails than in communication with pen and paper—even when both are done anonymously.

“The results of our study illustrate that traditional pen-and-paper communication is indeed different from e-mail in the way it influences people's behaviors, even though both [are] text only," conclude the study's authors, Charles Naquin of DePaul University, Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University and Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers University.

The study was among several thousand research reports presented at the meeting held Aug. 10-13. With more than 18,000 members in 92 countries, the 72-year-old academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to teaching and management research.

People are more likely to be ruder via e-mail, too, the researchers discovered. Disdainful behaviors like “flaming”—sending messages that are offensive, embarrassing or rude—plus exhibiting lower interpersonal trust and having more negative attitudes are more likely as well.

In a study done several years earlier, the same three researchers discovered that people appraising their peers in performance evaluations were more likely to be negative online than when writing by hand.

“Our initial study looked at performance evaluations,” Naquin told SHRM Online. “The online ones were harsher than the pen and paper evaluations.”

That led the researchers to conduct the present study, which was done in 2007. In it, Naquin said, 48 graduate business students participated in an ultimatum bargaining game.

“People had a fake pot of money—$89—and they had to divide it with another party.”

Subjects were told that the second party, who, in fact, was nonexistent, knew only that the pot size was between $5 and $100. As part of the agreement, the participant would have to reveal the amount of money being divided as well as what the split would be.

Naquin said that when people were required to type in the answer, they were more likely to lie about how much they were supposed to split than if they were doing so offline.

“The twist that is even more interesting … is if you have a commonality with the other side [attended the same school or worked on the same job for example], it turns out people will still lie … but they don’t tell as big as a whopper. The whopper is to a smaller degree,” he said.

As for evaluations, Naquin said: “If I were being evaluated in my annual performance review I would want it done by pen and paper rather than by e-mail.” But the important thing is to “make sure your peers are evaluated with the same medium. You don’t want any difference in perceived performance based on the medium, because that would be a bias.”

Professional lying is nothing new. Nearly half of more than 3,100 hiring managers report they’ve caught a job candidate lying on his or her resume, according to a recent survey.

In trying to account for the difference between two communication modes that appear similar, the academy researchers surmise that people might "feel written documents carry stronger legal consequences than do e-mails, which feel fleeting in nature, despite the fact that they are actually harder to erase or contain. Thus, deception may be viewed differently in these two environments."

They add: "Overall, the lower degree of social obligation found in the use of e-mail versus paper, coupled with ambiguity for communication norms and lack of formal rules, procedures, and expectations regarding e-mail, may allow individuals to tap into a sense of psychological justification for their deviant behaviors (such as deception) more easily online than in the paper mode.”

However, Naquin added, “people will lie more if they have the shield of privacy, and that holds true for both situations.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM. You can reach her at

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