Email and little white lies

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This is the next contribution to this blog by Associate Bob Bailly, a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner.

By Bob Bailly

There are a terrible lot of lies going around the world, and the worst of it is half of them are true.

– Winston Churchill

Lying increases the creative faculties, expands the ego, and lessens the frictions of social contacts

Clare Luce Booth

While not an exclusively human characteristic, the ability to lie is certainly a characteristic of humans. Philosophers such as Augustine, Aquinas and Kant condemned the use of misinformation and deception inherent in human communication, referring to false statements made with the intent to install false beliefs a perversion that undermines trust in society.

Yet the capacity to lie is undoubtedly a universal human development, and our language is full of nuanced descriptors of this behaviour – from barefaced lies to bluffing, from exaggeration to fabrication, or from perjury to puffery. So it is not surprising that in this age of neuroscientific breakthroughs, a most intriguing area of investigation concerns the impact that modern technology is having on the human tendency to “stretch the truth.”

In the early ’90s, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that the more detached people are from their interlocutor, the easier it is to lie. In a diary study of 77 people who recorded their every day social interactions, participants were asked to note when they told lies and which medium they were using. Across two distinct samples, people reported telling more lies more frequently over the phone than face to face.

If it seems that it’s harder to look someone straight in the eye and tell a lie than it is to fib over the phone, it should not be surprising that participants in these experiments have also been observed to lie more in written communications that in verbal exchanges.

However, in a newer study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, scientists were surprised to find that people lied 50 per cent more when writing emails than in handwritten letters.

In this experiment, a group of participants were told that they had to split $89 between themselves and a partner who they had not met – a partner who did not know the exact size of the pot. Participants were asked to send either an email or a handwritten letter to their partner indicating the size of the pot and the allocation.

As it turned out, there was no partner. Rather, the test was to see what participants would do using email or a handwritten letter. In the experiment, 24 of 26 people lied about the pot’s size using email, while in the handwritten group, only 14 lied. Lying increased by more than 50 per cent from pen and paper to email.

What is even more alarming is that the researchers perceived that lying is seen as an everyday social interaction process. In addition, participants felt more justified in lying using email and seemed unconcerned about the potential damage to their reputation of lying in an email versus a handwritten letter.

“People seem to feel more justified in acting in self-serving ways when typing as opposed to writing,” said co-author Terri Kurtzberg, an associate professor at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey.

No honour online?

In a paper titled “Being Honest Online,” the researchers also concluded that people feel they have more capacity to mislead when using high-tech communication than with more traditional methods.

Another co-author warned that businesses should be particularly careful when dealing with email.

“There is a growing concern in the workplace over email communications, and it comes down to trust,” said Liuba Belkin, an assistant professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

“You’re not afforded the luxury of seeing non-verbal and behavioural cues over email, and in an organizational context that leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation and – as we saw in our study – intentional deception.”

As well as lying, negativity seems to be another problem with email. Another study conducted by Kutzberg and her colleagues in 2005 looked at the academic review process for scientific journal articles and concluded that academics were “systematically more negative about each other’s papers when the process was conducted online.”

This study also found that performance reviews conducted online tend towards the negative as well.

To explain this, associate professor Charles Naquin and his associates at DePaul University called upon a theory put forward by eminent psychologist Albert Bandura called “moral disengagement theory.”

Bandura’s theory looks at how people “release” themselves from their normal ethical standards such as playing fair, respecting others or telling the truth. In other words, how they rationalize and allow themselves to commit acts that they know are wrong.

There are many ways that humans do this, but two of them fit perfectly with sending emails, as outlined in an article on PsyBlog entitled Email: Why People Feel Lying is Justified. It argues that both “changing how the offending actions are viewed and creating psychological distance from the harmful consequences of the action” are encouraged by three characteristics of email:

Less permanent: People think of it as a substitute for conversation rather than a letter. People feel they are “chatting” more in an email, rather than writing to each other.

Less restrained: People behave in a more disinhibited way online. Online exchanges show less conformity to social norms; people seem to display much less restraint and are less worried about what others think of them.

Lower personal connection: Studies show that online, people feel less trust and rapport with others, leaving them with a sense of disconnection.

This and other studies indicate that electronic communications is profoundly changing our personal ethical boundaries. However, the sheer volume of electronic communication is worrysome. From my perspective, the increasing use of everything from online surveys to job applications creates a built-in dilemma – how believable is the information being collected?

Business models that eliminate personal contact do so at their own jeopardy. Make no mistake, as online communication appears by its very nature to be suspect, looking someone in the eye is still the best way to assure a truthful relationship.

Image: © Tetiana Zbrodko – www.Fotolia.com

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