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In E-mail, the Truth Is E-lastic

People lie more often when using electronic communication, business profs find.
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Twitter emoji. 

That winking emoticon may be more revealing than we realize, ; ) . A new study suggests people are more likely to lie using e-mail than other forms of written communication.

In the latest in an ongoing series of studies of how our behavior changes when we interact via e-mail, researchers Terri Kurtzberg of the Rutgers University Business School, Charles Naquin of DePaul University and Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University report many people feel free to fib using the popular form of high-tech communication. Their paper, which has yet to be published, strongly suggests the "e" in e-mail does not stand for "ethics."

"In previous studies, we found there was less trust, less cooperation in e-mail communications," Kurtzberg said in a telephone interview. "Generally speaking, people seem to have a harder time building relationships in the context of e-mail as opposed to communicating via paper. We had some indications that people were more willing to justify bad behavior (via e-mails); we thought lying might be the next piece. Sure enough, we saw a consistent effect."

Kurtzberg and her colleagues created "a stripped-down task" to test their thesis. "There wasn't a lot of context," she noted. "We told people, 'Here's a fictitious pot of money. Divide it between yourself and another person. Tell them how big the whole pot was and how much their share is.'"

The study participants — 48 full-time MBA students — controlled all the information. Half of them informed the other person of their "winnings" via a handwritten note; the other half sent e-mails.

In most cases, "What they chose to do was make themselves look fair," she said. "They reduced the amount they reported. Instead of saying, 'There's $89 dollars here to split' (which was the actual amount), they'd say, 'There's $69 here to split, and I'm giving you $32.' It was important to maintain the illusion of honesty and fairness."

While that was true of both groups of participants, those who conveyed the information electronically were 50 percent more likely to lie. Specifically, 92 percent of those who communicated via e-mail were dishonest, compared with 62 percent of those who informed their partner via pen and paper.

"We (deliberately) made it easy for them to lie," Kurtzberg said. "There was no accountability. We told them the other side would never know the truth."

"On the other hand, this was not real money," Kurtzberg said. "There was nothing at stake, so there was no reason for them not to be the good guy. Yet the instinct to pull a fast one over e-mail was that much stronger."

In a follow-up test, the researchers looked at the question of whether people would be more honest if they felt some identification with the people they were swindling.

"We divided them into two groups," she said. "In one, they supposedly shared money with students from their own school, while in the second, they shared it with students from a different school. All of them in this test used e-mail. We still saw a tremendous amount of lying — 79 percent, give or take."

Why do people feel less pressure to tell the truth in an e-mail? Kurtzberg suspects the answer lies in "the norms we hold in our heads regarding what's acceptable behavior."

She noted that previous studies have shown the rate of lying is highest in telephone conversations. Scholars have hypothesized that is due to the presumed impermanence of the interaction. We assume we are more likely to get away with a lie during a casual chat, since it occurs in a fleeting moment and there's no record of it.

Kurtzberg suspects we regard e-mail as similarly ephemeral.

"I think people have a slightly mistaken gut reaction to typing e-mails. We think of them as fleeting, when in truth they're anything but. We've seen some big corporate figures to get caught (by e-mail evidence). They're significantly harder to contain or erase than a piece of paper.

"This is just conjecture, but I suspect that as we see the generation that grew up using e-mail as a social tool enters the work force, they're imperfectly making the transition to using it as a professional tool. People who grew up with e-mail as a chit-chat tool don't feel that it's formal; they consider it more like an off-the-cuff conversation. So this problem may get worse before it gets better."

E-mail, she notes, is a relatively new phenomenon; the rules of correct behavior have yet to be codified. "We need to set expectations for e-mail use," she said. "The more precise we get about what this tool is and how it should be used, I suspect it'll fall in line with other, similar forms of communication."

So after doing this research, is she more suspicious of the notes that appear in her in-box? "Not in day-to-day communications," she said. "I don't feel that the kind of information I send and receive over e-mail is particularly conducive to somebody else acting in a self-serving way.

"But were we having some sort of negotiations — some sort of communication where I needed something specific, and you had a vested interest in not giving it to me — my red flag would go up."
Hmm. Is there an emoticon denoting distrust? : (