Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Researcher: Workers more prone to lie in e-mail

Liuba Belkin

Workers are significantly 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.

More surprising is that people actually feel justified when lying using e-mail, the studies show.

“There is a growing concern in the workplace over e-mail communications, and it comes down to trust,” says Belkin, an assistant professor of management in the College of Business and Economics. “You’re not afforded the luxury of seeing non-verbal and behavioral cues over e-mail. And in an organizational context, that leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation and, as we saw in our study, intentional deception.”

The results of the studies are reported in the paper, “Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining.” Belkin and her co-authors—Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers University and Charles Naquin of DePaul University—presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management held in August.

Justified in lying

In one study, Belkin and her colleagues handed 48 full-time MBA students $89 to divide between themselves and another fictional party, who only knew the dollar amount fell somewhere between $5 and $100. There was one pre-condition: the other party had to accept whatever offer was made to them.

Using either e-mail or pen-and-paper communications, the MBA students reported the size of the pot—truthful or not—and how much the other party would get.

The results were staggering. Students using e-mail lied more than 92 percent of the time, while those using pen-and-paper lied slightly less than 64 percent. The rate of lying was almost 50 percent greater among those using e-mail than with those using pen-and-paper.

E-mailers also said they felt more justified in awarding the other party just $29 out of what they claimed was a total pot of about $56.

Although deceptive in their own right, pen-and-paper students were a little friendlier. On average, they passed along almost $34 out of a misrepresented pot of about $67.

“It’s not just that e-mailers were more deceptive,” Belkin says. “It’s that the magnitude by which they lied was significantly greater.”

Looking for an opportunity to explain whether a shared sense of identity reduces an e-mailer’s impulse to lie, Belkin and her colleagues set up a second, related study of 69 full-time MBA students. The results of that study indicated that the more familiar e-mailers are with each other, the less deceptive their lies would be.

Bu they would still lie, regardless of how well they identified with each other.

In recent years, researchers who have compared e-mail 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.

But in trying to account for the difference between two communication modes that appear similar, the researchers surmise in their report 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."

According to researchers, e-mail was first widely used in workplace communications beginning in 1994. Since then, organizational norms regarding e-mail use have evolved, but remain murky.

“The study of industrial psychology and the evolving use of e-mail are presenting some interesting challenges for organizations across the board,” says Belkin, who has studied organizational communications over the past few years. “We know it’s a socially acceptable way to communicate, but how that translates in the workplace is a different story entirely.”

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, September 23, 2008

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