Need to Lie: Technology and the Lying Revolution

This post was written as part of a research blogging assignment for Stanford’s Networked Rhetorics class.  For more about this assignment, click here.

Google is no stranger to privacy hiccups, but the controversy surrounding Latitude, its location-broadcasting platform for mobile devices, was a bit surprising, even for me. I’m normally pretty keen on privacy, but I could not believe the multitude of users who clamored for the ability to set – and thus lie about – their locations. Yahoo had released a similar product a year earlier, except with the explicit provision of manual location entry. And it seems Yahoo head of product Tom Coates was right: “it’s a good thing that users can lie.”

Intrigued, I used this quote as a launchpad into my research project for Stanford’s Networked Rhetoric class. I want to explore the ways by which technology has affected the way we lie, in particular focusing on recent developments in social communication technology – email, instant messaging, text messaging, video conference, smartphones, and online social networking sites. I hope to compare deception practices in these contexts with the more traditional forms of face-to-face and telephone communication. Fortunately, Cornell researcher Jeff Hancock has performed numerous quantitative studies of deception along similar lines, establishing him as one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of deception. His 2004 paper “Deception and Design: The Impact of Communication Technology on Lying Behavior” had especially interesting results.

Before reading his study, I would have guessed that social technology had opened up so many new ways of communicating that people would find technology-assisted lying overwhelmingly easier and more prevalent. After all, Google and Yahoo had just given me two examples of user-demanded lying, and it was not hard to find a multitude of other examples. Fake Calls, an iPhone application designed to simulate incoming calls, and online dating sites came immediately to mind. It was obvious, I thought, that technology had increased our ability and desire to lie.

But Hancock’s study gave a startling rebuttal of that claim. Using a week-long diary study of 30 college students, Hancock et al. analyzed the daily rates of communication and deception in face-to-face, email, instant messaging, and telephone interactions. He found that face-to-face communication accounted for a dominating 65% of an individual’s daily lies. But when adjusted for the frequency of use, Hancock found that lies were most frequently told on the phone (38%), followed by face-to-face (26%), via instant messaging (22%), and least of all, by email (12%). His research suggested that people tended to lie most in synchronous, non-recorded modes of communication that involved a physical separation between parties. While his results support his claim, this was still disturbing to me, as most of the social technology examples I had named were asynchronous and recorded, putting them in a similar bracket to email.

Of course, before I write off my initial hypothesis, it’s important to keep in mind that Hancock’s study was performed in 2004, before many of the social technologies in my list really matured. To put this time period in perspective, 26 times more texts were sent in 2008 than in 2004, and now-common technologies like the iPhone (2007), Facebook (2003), and Skype (2003) were not at all used. So it’s quite possible that lying practices have changed considerably since Hancock’s study. Furthermore, based on email usage trends collected as part of the study, he concluded that “increased experience with a communication technology may lead to increased deception with that technology.” Now that users are more familiar with technology-mediated communication, has the lying picture changed?

Technology-mediated deception is an ongoing topic of research, but as far as I know, no comprehensive research has been done in recent years comparing the effects of these various social technologies on deception. I look forward to piecing together this research and plugging this hole in society’s knowledge.

Frank Li

Stanford University, Class of 2012

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Need to Lie: Technology and the Lying Revolution

  1. ccrvisitor says:

    One thing I noticed right off the bat about Hancock’s study is that it utilized a week-long diary study of 30 college students. I’m not sure if you were planning on doing this, but I think it would be really interesting if you conducted your own week-long diary study of 30 Stanford students and compared the results to Hancock’s study. I think that you would find that a lot has changed in 6 years, a lot of it due to the advances in technology you talked about. I think the almost omnipresent use of Facebook by students in the year 2010 will greatly affect your results, and I believe you would most definitely find that the increased experience with social media has led to an increase in technology-mediated deception.

    -Christopher Sung

  2. Yiam says:

    Wow. You really have lots of data backing your research. You’re saying that technology increase our ability to lie. I think it really gives us a new way to lie. Although this new way give people a physical distance and usually conceal identities, it is not superior to traditional lies in every way because lying can be recorded anytime. phone and instant messaging can be recorded. Every commmunication on the internet is usually recorded too. This is unlike face-to-face communication. So, if others really want to verify a lie, they can trace back.

  3. feross says:

    Frank — your writing style is excellent. I also really like your explanation of why you chose this research topic. It’s quite interesting that users even want to lie, and that they clamored for this ability from Google so loudly and publicly. You have a lot of room to do some interesting psychological research here, which I think would yield some awesome results.

    Great job, keep it up!

    – Feross Aboukhadijeh

  4. Jonathan says:

    Frank, super interesting. A lot of the research on deception and its detection precedes, as you point out, the full development of these social media technologies. But folks are nonetheless trying to develop our ability to detect deception or misrepresentation using software, as recounted in this 2007 Popular Science article:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=eVMLO1GM9uQC&lpg=PA27&pg=PA27#v=onepage&q&f=true

    Nice work!

  5. christinealfano says:

    I’m impressed with how your research topic is coming along. From a focus on your initial two examples, you are now broadening out to some really rich resource materials. I very much like Chris’s suggestions about the Stanford study — it might be a lot of work, but it would certainly give you something original and new to say on this topic.

    In addition, I’m glad you didn’t like Hancock’s conclusions dampen your own conviction about your hypothesis. Your point is spot-on about the way that communication technologies have evolved since he published the article (and keep in mind, that’s a publication date — not even a writing date! It was probably written closer to 2003.). I suspect that the advent of Twitter alone would change the landscape of lying significantly.

  6. Hey Frank Li,

    Taylor & Rachel here from UT. Your topic is really interesting and definitely relevant to our technology-obbsessed generation. One thing we thought about that goes along with your topic is the iPhone app TigerText. This app allows users to determine when the sent text message will be deleted off of their phone AND off the receiver’s phone. This is typically used for “cheaters” and highlights the accessibility of deceptive technological devices and people’s desire for more of them. It will be interesting to see your results compared to Hancock’s study, especially considering the exponential boom of social networking sites. Also, when Facebook first came about it was limited to university students and you actually had to have a university email or be invited to the network. You may want to consider recent developments like Chatroulette.

    Good luck in your writing!

    Taylor & Rachel

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