Why Technology Makes it Easier for Us to Lie: A Psychological Perspective
Technology has given us many benefits over the past quarter of a century. And in recent years with the pandemic, we have literally seen it save jobs through working remotely. It offers the convenience of online schooling and the immediate update on what is happening around the world. But there is a flip side to all this technology.
We can be faceless wonders who hide behind the instrument we control wielding untruths. We regularly see “fake news” on the internet and social media. Many of us have been offered scam sales pitches, and people post their greatest lives on their Facebook and Instagram accounts, leaving out some of the reality. There have been studies on how social media can lead to depression because of this. Often, this is harmless, “little white lies” one tells to get out of going to an event with a friend or taking a “sick” day from work. But when it comes down to it, it is still lying. Hiding behind a laptop or a smartphone to a faceless audience doesn’t change that fact. In this blog article, I want to explore why people lie through technology and which technology we are more likely to tell lies with when using.
At Life University (Life U) we aspire to our values of Lasting Purpose and Integrity, as well as in our mission and value statements. However much we strive to uphold these values, there are times when we slip, so today I explore the following questions.
Why are people more willing to lie on a laptop versus a smartphone for personal gain?
One recent Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) article explored research that was being conducted on this very question. Terri R. Kurtzberg, Associate Professor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers University – Newark; Charles Naquin, Associate Professor of Management at DePaul University; and Mason Ameri, Associate Professor of Professional Practice at Rutgers University – Newark conducted a series of research studies which originally appeared in The Conversation and was republished in the AJC in September 2022.
These three professors performed a “take it or leave it” exercise. One person in the study was offered a set amount of money, but they were told that they must split it with a partner. That person was given the “actual” amount of money to be received and was also told that it was up to them whether or not to tell their partner the true amount, meaning that they were allowed to make up any amount that they wished. But the only way they could receive the money was if both people agreed to accept it. Remember now, the first partner can lie to the second partner about the total amount of money they would be able to split if they both agreed to take the money.
This study involved 137 graduate students who were each offered $125 to share with a fellow student randomly assigned to them. We should note that no real money was used in this study, but they were to operate as if there was. Half of the research group used their laptops to communicate with their partners in this study, and the other half used their smartphones. The results were interesting because most of the original partners lied about the total amount of money being offered, even by just a little bit. So we see those “little white lies” show up again. The extraordinary result was that the people who lied the most were using their laptops.
The next experiment this group of professors performed involved two people participating in pretend business negotiations to purchase a factory. The person who represented the “buyer” was told the “true” market value of the factory; however, this information was not shared with the person who played the “seller” role. The buyers were then asked to share with the sellers what they believed was the factory’s true market value. Again, about half of the students used their phones, and the other half used their laptops for this experiment. The results were the same as the previous experiment. People were more deceptive on their laptops than they were on their smartphones.
To understand why this was happening, researchers again asked a new group of students how they associated with each device. They found that people associated their phones with their personal lives and think in terms of friends and family. Laptops bring forth an association with work and professional accomplishments, “which previous research has shown to trigger unethical behavior,” the article stated.
These professors believe that this was significant because this study, as well as previous ones, shows that people are more apt to lie virtually than they are in person, and it “subtly, yet fundamentally, shifts the way our brains work.”
There were some unknowns that resulted from this study. One such unknown was how people would react if their experimental partners were people with which that they had an existing relationship. From this research, these professors believe that we need to continue to assess how technology affects truth-telling versus lying in real-life settings.
Has the Change in Technology Changed our Lying Habits?
Another study that was listed in The Conversation goes back a few years, but it is worth discussing because it shows the onset of technology and its affects in 2004. This particular study was conducted by Jeff Hancock, Harry & Norman Chandler Professor of Communication, Stanford University, and his colleagues. They asked 28 students to keep track of their face-to-face, phone, instant messaging and email social interactions over the course of one week and also track when and where they lied. What Hancock found was that people lied over the phone more and less through email. This is quite a change from the “take it or leave it experiment” that was conducted much more recently.
According to the article in The Conversation, “The findings aligned with a framework Hancock called the ‘feature-based model.’ According to this model, specific aspects of a technology – whether people can communicate back and forth seamlessly, whether the messages are fleeting and whether communicators are distant – predict where people tend to lie the most. In Hancock’s study, the most lies per social interaction occurred via the technology with all these features: the phone. The fewest occurred on email, where people couldn’t communicate synchronously and the messages were recorded.”
It is important to note that when this study was conducted in 2004, only a handful of students had Facebook accounts, and the iPhone was in the early development stages, which puts this study in somewhat different lens to the one we look through today.
How Did Things Change in 20 Years?
Not much has changed in 20 years when David M Markowitz conducted a new study and published his results in 2021. Markowitz found that even though the technological landscape has changed, the results were very similar to the 2004 study.
David Markowitz’s takeaway from these studies: “Despite changes in the way people communicate over the past two decades – along with ways the COVID-19 pandemic changed how people socialize – people seem to lie systematically and in alignment with the feature-based model.” Most importantly, we should note that a person’s “individual’s tendency to lie matters more than whether someone is emailing or talking on the phone,” according to Markowitz.
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