E-mail faster, but snail mail likely more honest

People who communicate by e-mail at work may be more likely to lie than those who use pen and paper, two recent studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., suggest.

Studies show workplace e-mailers more willing to lie

People who communicate by e-mail at work may be more likely to lie than those who use pen and paper, two recent studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., suggest.

"There is a growing concern in the workplace over e-mail communications and it comes down to trust," says Liuba Belkin, a co-author of the studies.

"You're not afforded the luxury of seeing non-verbal and behavioural 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," Belkin said.

However, co-author Charles Naquin pointed out: "Both of these media — e-mail and pen-and-paper — are text only. Neither has greater 'communication bandwidth' than the other. Yet we still see a dramatic difference."

The results of the studies are reported in the paper, Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining.

Belkin wrote the paper along with Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers University and Naquin of DePaul University.

Students started with $89

In one study, the researchers handed 48 full-time MBA students $89 to divide between themselves and another unnamed party who only knew the dollar amount was between $5 and $100.

There was one precondition: the other party had to accept whatever offer was made.

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 MBA students using e-mail lied about the amount of money to be divided more than 94 per cent of the time, while fewer than 64 per cent lied about the pot size when using pen and paper.

Those who used e-mail also said they felt justified in awarding the other party just $29 out of a supposed total pot of about $56.

Both groups lied

Pen-and-paper students were a little more generous. On average, they passed along almost $34 out of a misrepresented pot of about $67.

Looking for an opportunity to explain whether a shared sense of identity reduces an e-mailer's impulse to lie, the researchers set up a second, related study of 69 full-time MBA students.

The results of that study suggest that the more familiar e-mailers are with each other, the less deceptive their lies would be.

But they would still lie, regardless of how well they identified with each other, the study found.

"These findings are consistent with our other work that shows that e-mail communication decreases the amount of trust and co-operation we see in professional group work, and increases the negativity in performance evaluations, all as opposed to pen-and-paper systems," Kurtzberg said.

"People seem to feel more justified in acting in self-serving ways when typing, as opposed to writing," he said.