In 1996, University of Virginia psychologist Bella M. DePaulo published a landmark study on lying that revealed an ugly truth about humans: Everyone fibs left and right.
DePaulo asked participants keep a daily dairy and jot down who they spoke to, what they said and whether they were telling the truth or lying, even during the most casual interactions.
The results? People dropped an average of two lies every day.
Since the DePaulo study, many of our day-to-day interactions have moved online through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and online dating portals.
We're communicating in new ways, but we have the same old anxieties about who’s telling the truth. Without the face-to-face interaction that provides non-verbal cues of deception (i.e., avoiding eye contact), we’re more concerned than ever about whether we can believe what we see online.
That handsome doctor you met on OKCupid? Must be a creep. The neighbor on Facebook with a million friends? Probably a shut-in. The glowing resume on LinkedIn? Has to be fake.
“Most people believe that given the opportunity, everything else equal, people will lie more online than they would face-to-face,” said Jeff Hancock, an associate professor of communications at Cornell University who specializes in information technology and deception.
Hancock calls this the “cues heuristic,” which means the fewer deception-detecting signals at our disposal, the less we’ll trust someone.
At the same time, research indicates that technology, which allows us craft picture-perfect social networking profiles or e-mail in sick when we’re lounging on the beach, isn’t tempting us to lie any more than we normally do.
“Deception online and face to face is motivated by the same human needs,” said Catalina Toma, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied online deception. “Technology simply interferes in some ways that might decrease or facilitate the opportunity to lie.”
Surprisingly, a study of deception in e-mails versus phone calls found that people were more honest in e-mails because they can be documented, saved and aren’t real-time communication scenarios, which is when most people drop white lies.
Technology isn't the gateway to rampant deception; instead, Toma and Hancock both suspect that our distrust of communication technology is more likely rooted in our fear of it.
“We’ve evolved as a species that talks face to face, and evolution is a slow process, and we’re interacting in a new environment where our basic assumptions are undercut,” Hancock said.
So, in a way, it’s natural to expect people to lie more online.
“Every time a technology is new, it elicits great fears. Many people are fearful about what it’s going to do,” Toma said. “So I think fears about deception stem from this general fear of technology and certain features of technologies that make it easy to lie.”
However, we can rest easier since people don’t always take advantage of these tech-facilitated opportunities to lie. Just like face-to-face lying, there’s a cost-benefits evaluation involved in online deception.
For example, Hancock and Toma’s research on deception in online dating has found that around 80 percent of people pepper their profiles with “very, very small” lies, such as a man saying he’s 6 feet tall, when he’s really 5 feet 10 inches.
Fudging one’s height is a minor cost with a major self-presentation benefit of looking more appealing to potential partners.
On the flip side, Hancock’s recent study comparing deception in traditional resumes (the average American drops in three fibs) versus digital resumes posted on LinkedIn found fewer flagrant lies online.
In that case, misrepresenting a point, such as your tenure at a company, is easy to verify in an online network perhaps populated by other coworkers and employers — and therefore too great of a risk.
Fingering a lie online – and in-person – also relies less on spotting specific factual slip-ups than noticing overall inconsistencies in how people present themselves.
“It’s really important to know that there is no single cue that always predicts deception, and a lot of people will tell you differently,” Hancock said. “And even more importantly, we’re not very good as humans at judging deception. So, if someone’s trying to lie to us, they have a leg up."
In fact, Hancock’s advice for detecting deception online is a solid rule of thumb for pinpointing Pinocchios in the real world.
“One of my friends is a prison guard, and he and I were talking about some of our research, and he told me there’s a saying among the guards that if something doesn’t feel right, it’s not,” Hancock said. “The idea (with spotting online deception) is to pay attention to how you’re feeling about things, and that if something doesn’t feel quite right or is too good to be true, it probably is.”
Photo: Ian Sanderson/Getty Images