Lies, lies, lies

Dec 22 2011 by Bob Selden Print This Article

We all lie. Surprising? Maybe, but apparently it's true (pun intended). In fact it's been estimated that on average we all tell between two and five lies per day.

Leonard Saxe, Ph.D., a polygraph expert and professor of psychology at Brandeis University, says, "Lying has long been a part of everyday life. We couldn't get through the day without being deceptive."

And Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, confirmed the assertion that the lie is a condition of life. In a 1996 study, DePaulo and her colleagues had 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 keep a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week.

Most people, she found, lie once or twice a day - almost as often as they snack from the refrigerator or brush their teeth. Both men and women lie in approximately a fifth of their social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes; over the course of a week they deceive about 30 per cent of those with whom they interact one-on-one (as reported in Psychology Today, May 01, 1997).

Remember, this study relied on "self-reports", so the actual figure could be a good deal higher. Keep in mind also that this was 1996 and "face-to-face", long before the advent of online communication such as Facebook, Twitter and texting.

So, what's "lying" got to do with business, and particularly management?

In a new study (to be published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2012), researchers have found that people are more likely to lie via text compared to face-to-face communications, video conferencing or audio chat.

In the study, 140 subjects were paired Ė one taking the role of stock broker, the other a buyer of stock. The brokers were told the stock they were selling would lose 50% of its value within a week. They were offered incentives to sell the stock.

The study found that the "brokers" were most likely to engage in duplicitous behavior -- either lying about the quality of the stock, or not mentioning how bad it was -- if they conducted the buy/sell conversation via text message.

This seems to make intuitive sense. When people lie face-to-face, we are all very good at picking up the visual, kinaesthetic and audio cues Ė twitching, shifting of gaze, sweaty palms etc. None of these cues is available to us via texting.

This study also confirms previous research by author Sherry Turkle ("Alone Together" 2010) who showed that people are more likely to falsely describe themselves and their achievements in social media such as Facebook than they are during face-to-face interviews.

As managers, the first conclusion we can draw from this research, is to trust face-to-face communication from colleagues, direct reports and bosses more readily than text. Keep in mind that this also works both ways Ė people may also trust our own texts less.

But there are two other interesting aspects that come from this recent study.

The first is that while face-to-face is likely to be a more truthful medium than texting, video beat texting and also beat audio chat (phoning).

No reasons or hypotheses were given for this finding. It will no doubt be the subject of further investigation. Could it be that video forces one's attention to the face? Or perhaps that video may be intuitively seen as a permanent record of what we say? Whatever the reasons, this finding is useful evidence of the veracity of video conferencing.

However, the second and perhaps more surprising aspect for managers in these findings is in regard to the anger experienced by the buyers when they found out they had been lied to.

People were least angry when they had been lied to face-to-face and most angry when they had been lied to via text message.

"That was a big surprise to us," said Ronald Cenfetelli, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, who co-authored the paper.

"What we speculated was going on, is there is some instant rapport-building, and some quick trust that happens when you talk to someone face to face, and it acts as a buffer and an inoculation -- almost like a vaccine -- against negative reactions. People are still angry or upset if they are lied to face to face, but when they are lied to in the leaner communications (texts), they are more angry."

So it seems as if when we text we might be more likely to:

  • "Stretch the truth", for example, say "I'm 10 minutes away when I'm 20 minutes away", or
  • Take time to plan out our message and "put it in the best light" (other media do not allow for this), or
  • Be more chatty than we actually are in person (shy people), or
  • Be able to hide our true emotions

The researchers said businesses can also learn from the study that video conferencing or in-person interactions can help businesses make a better impression on customers.

I've long suspected that as managers, we tend to "colour" the truth when we report upwards, particularly if it's bad news. If this is so, then this research suggest we are far better off doing so face-to-face, by phone (audio) or videoing than texting. And perhaps when we have some doubts about the genuineness of a colleague or direct report's message, it would be useful to actually talk it through.

So if you have a tough message to give to your boss (which experience suggests you are most likely to "colour" in some shape or form), there could be a useful message here. Keep in mind that he/she will be less angry if you do happen to slip up in the heat of the moment and tell that little fib, if you've done it in person or via video call rather than via text.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.