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E-Mail Is More Conducive than Pen and Paper to Dishonesty, Experiments Suggest

July 1, 2008

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

What is there about e-mail?
In recent years, researchers who have compared it to other modes of communication have found it to be associated with such unattractive behaviors as lower interpersonal trust, more negative attitudes, and, perhaps most notoriously, a greater penchant for "flaming" -- sending messages that are offensive, embarrassing, or rude.
Now to these unwelcome behaviors, new research adds still another one of equal, if not more, importance -- a greater readiness to tell lies.
A study to be presented at the forthcoming annual meeting of the Academy of Management finds people significantly more willing to lie in e-mails than in communication with pen and paper, even when both are done in relative anonymity. Moreover, they feel more justified in lying.
"The results of our study illustrate that traditional pen-and-paper communication is indeed different from e-mail in the way it influences people's behaviors, even though both [are] text only," conclude the study's authors," Charles Naquin of DePaul University, Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers University, and Liuba Belkin of Lehigh University
The difference in the propensity to lie, which emerged in a series of experiments, may not persuade the Internal Revenue Service to audit all tax returns filed electronically, but it was substantial nonetheless.
The findings come as something of a surprise, since there is a sizable body of media research that views e-mails as exactly equivalent to written communications, even while considering both to be quite different from conversing face to face or by phone.
In a prior study, however, the same three investigators found that people doing appraisals of peers were more prone to be negative than those doing them in writing. While one inference of that discovery may be that people are more inclined to truth-telling when online, another, Prof. Kurtzberg says, is simply that accountability is lower in the online setting, an interpretation consistent with the new findings.
In trying to account for the difference between two communication modes that appear similar, the researchers surmise that people may "feel written documents carry stronger legal consequences than do e-mails, which feel fleeting in nature, despite the fact that they are actually harder to erase or contain. Thus, deception may be viewed differently in these two environments."
And they add: "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 one experiment carried out as part of the new research, 48 graduate business students participated in an ultimatum bargaining game nicknamed "dictator." Participants were given an imaginary $89 and told that they should divide it as they saw fit with a second party, who would have to accept whatever split was offered.
Each subject was told that the second party, who, in fact, didn't exist, knew only that the pot size was between $5 and $100; as part of the arrangement, the participant would have to reveal the amount of money being divided as well as what the split would be.
Twenty-six participants were asked to send this information by e-mail to the class instructor (who supposedly would inform the second party), and the remaining 22 were to write it on a piece of paper, which they were to drop in the instructor's secure mailbox. Although in both instances the instructor would know their response, subjects were assured that the second party in this exercise would never know their identity and vice versa. All subjects were given five days to provide the information.
Among the e-mail group, 24 of 26 participants (92.31%) misrepresented the pot size, compared to 14 of 22 (63.64%) in the pen-and-paper group. In other words, the rate of lying was almost 50% greater among the e-mailers.
In addition, participants in the e-mail group lied more egregiously: on average, they represented the $89 pot to be $56.15 compared to an average of $67.32 for the pen-and-paper group. In both cases, offers were roughly half of the reported pot size, meaning that e-mailers offered the second party significantly less than the pen-and-paper group did.
At the conclusion of the experiment, participants were asked, "How justified would it be if you misrepresented the size of your pot to the recipient?"On a scale of 1 (not at all justified) to 7 (very justified), the e-mail group averaged 4.77 compared to 3.91 for the pen-and-paper group, a difference that was statistically significant.
To test whether this greater sense of self-justification among e-mailers simply reflected the fact that more of them had already lied -- and had lied more egregiously -- the researchers carried out a second experiment with a different cohort of 56 graduate business students. The exercise was similar to the prior one except in this case participants were asked to assess their sense of justification before they informed the second party about the size of the pot and the way it would be split.  Once again e-mailers reported feeling significantly more justified to lie. This time 25 of 28 e-mailers (89.29%) misrepresented the size of the pot, compared to 19 of 28 (67.85%) among writers, and once again e-mailers lied more egregiously about the pot size.
While conceding that the experiments revealed a considerable amount of deception, Prof. Naquin credited the participants with forthrightness in their answers. "Since no real money was at stake, they would have lost nothing by simply giving truthful information to the supposed second party; that they didn't choose that path suggests that they took the exercises seriously."
Then he adds: "I expect, though, that if the experiments had involved real money, we would have seen even more dramatic effects."

The study, entitled "Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining," will be among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management meeting. Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 18,000 members in 92 countries, including more than 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 8,000 scholars and practitioners to Anaheim, California from August 10th to 13th for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage: Fibbing easier through e-mail. (Thursday, July 24, 2008).
KnowledgeCurve. Fibbing by e-mail. (Monday, March 01, 2010).
The Guardian (UK). Cash test shows people lie more by email, researchers say. (Thursday, October 02, 2008).

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