E-Mail Lies: Studies Show More Honesty in Handwriting

Pair of studies show M.B.A. students more prone to lie in E-mail than handwritten note.

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A recent pair of studies seem to indicate that people are more likely to lie in an E-mail than with pen and paper. The studies are published in a new paper, "Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining," coauthored by researchers from DePaul, Rutgers and Lehigh universities.

In the first study, 48 M.B.A. students were given $89 and asked to divide it between themselves and another—fictional—party. The fictional party would be required to accept the offer and knew only that the sum would be between $5 and $100.

The 48 students were asked to E-mail or handwrite the other parties with the details of the split: the size of the pot and the amount they would share. The students who used E-mail lied about the sum of the $89 pot more than 92 percent of the time. Students who handwrote their offers lied less than 64 percent of the time. (On average, the students offered slightly more than half of their deceptively downsized total pots to their fictional counterparts. Very generous.)

The second study found that the students tended to be more honest in E-mails to people with whom they were familiar, but they still lied.

One very interesting point:

"These findings are consistent with our other work that shows that E-mail communication decreases the amount of trust and cooperation we see in professional group-work, and increases the negativity in performance evaluations, all as opposed to pen-and-paper systems," says coauthor Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers. "People seem to feel more justified in acting in self-serving ways when typing as opposed to writing."

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