People were almost 50% more likely to lie in e-mail messages than in traditional pen-and-paper communications, according to two new studies co-authored by Lehigh’s Liuba Belkin. [And earlier research showed that face-to-face communication was even more trustworthy.] Moreover, individuals felt more justified in lying via e-mail.
The paper, “Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining.” was reported by Liubia Belkin (Lehigh), Terri Kurtzberg (Rutgers) and Charles Naquin (DePaul) at the August annual meeting of the Academy of Management.
Bubkin points out that there is a lot of e-mail in the workplace and “[a]nd in an organizational context, that leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation and, as we saw in our study, intentional deception.”
In a prior study, the three co-investigators found that e-appraisals of peers were more negative than those done in writing which the authors concluded was consistent with the current study in showing that accountability is lower online.
The study asked 48 full-time MBA students to divide $89 between themselves and another unknown party, who only knew that somewhere between $5 and $100 had been given to distribute. It was an Ultimatum Game where the receiving party had to accept whatever amount to them. The MBA students reported the amount that they were giving to the other person and ‘how much they had to distribute.’ Students reporting using e-mail lied more than 92 percent of the time, while those using pen-and-paper lied slightly less than 64 percent. Not only did pen and paper users distribute more to the other party, but they felt less justified in lying. The authors surmised that people may lie more via e-mail because they falsely perceive the written documents to be more ‘legal” and permanent. In a follow-up study, they learned that this justification with lying by e-mail was determined before they chose how much to share with the other person.
The authors noted: “”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.”
In a second, related study of 69 full-time MBA students, they found that MBA students still lied, regardless of how well they identified with the recipient, although they lied less if they identified more with the other person.
The authors note that other recent studies have found e-mail to be associated with lower interpersonal trust, more negative attitudes, and, a greater penchant for “flaming”—sending messages that are offensive, embarrassing, or rude.
Cites: Naquin C.E., Kurtzberg, T.R., & Belkin, L.Y (2008, forthcoming) “Online communication and social dilemmas: How communication media influences interpersonal trust, cooperative behavior and perceptions of fairness,” Social Justice Research Journal.
– Naquin C.E., Kurtzberg, T.R., & Belkin, L.Y (2008) “Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining” (Paper, annual meeting of the Academy of Management, August 2008)