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The things we do: How technology undermines our ability to lie

Roxanne Bauer's picture

We are told, on average, around 200 lies per day.  Most of these lies are harmless and meant to protect the self-esteems of the liar or the one being lied to.  However, as technology and social media become more integral to our lives, how will our ability to deceive change?

youth using smartphonesAs technology and the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ becomes more pervasive in our lives, the amount of information we leave as online bread crumbs also expands. Online advertising companies, for instance, collect huge amounts of information about our browsing histories, which can unearth a pretty comprehensive profile of what we've been up to on the Internet— and by extension in reality. Moreover, smartphones are very sophisticated tracking and eavesdropping devices that follow our every move, from fitness tracking and location services to text messages and social media apps.
 
As individuals, we can manipulate our online personas so that only the best of us is shown.  We may post photographs of our vacations, tweet about our chance encounters with celebrities, or write status updates that sound optimistic and cheerful— all the while omitting our headaches and heartaches.  But what happens when our Fitbits reveal our connection to our sofas or our smartphones expose our in previously denied affection for Taylor Swift?
 
In a paper published in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law in 2012 Kathryn R. Brown distilled research on social media psychology and found that users screen photographs of themselves in order to present themselves as “attractive” and “having fun”. She also found that they adjust their personas to seem “socially desirable,” “group-oriented,” and “smiling.” At the same time, “individuals are unlikely to capture shameful, regrettable, or lonely moments with a camera.”
 

Why do we lie? 

While some people lie to avoid punishment or to avoid hurting someone else's feelings, others lie out of impulse or because they want to present an ideal version of themselves to others.  One common denominator, however, seems to be self-esteem.

In one study, from 2002, researchers led by Richard Feldman examined how the desire to present one’s self in a certain way affected the amount and type of verbal deception that participants used.  The participants were asked to engage in a conversation between themselves and another individual that was secretly videotaped. One participant was told to either appear likable or competent. A third group, the control group, was asked to simply get to know his or her partner.  After the conversation, those participants that were asked to seem likeable or competent reviewed a video recording of their interaction and were told to identify the moments in which they were "not entirely accurate."

Initially, each subject insisted that what they had said was entirely accurate. Upon watching the videos, however, subjects were genuinely surprised to learn they had been inaccurate. The lies ranged from pretending to like someone they did not to falsely claiming to be the star of a rock band.

Overall, participants told more lies when they had a goal to appear likable or competent compared to participants in the control condition.  In fact, 60 percent of the participants lied at least once during the10-minute conversation, saying an average of 2.92 inaccurate things.  The content of the lies also varied whether they were trying to seem likeable or competent.

According to Feldman, lying is, “tied in with self-esteem. We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels."

"We're trying not so much to impress other people but to maintain a view of ourselves that is consistent with the way they would like us to be," he said.

Lying in the Workplace

Other research has delved into lying in the workplace. Self-esteem and threats to our sense of self are seemingly omnipresent in the workplace so it’s not surprising that another study showed that people are more willing to lie to coworkers than they are to strangers.

Researchers asked participants to imagine themselves in a scenario in which they had paid more than a coworker had for the same new car. The scenario was then adjusted so that the difference between what the participant and their coworker had paid varied from $200 or $2,000.  The participant was asked how they would respond. The study found that people were more willing to lie when the price difference was small and when they were talking to a coworker rather than to a stranger, suggesting that in professional relationships, short-term benefits to an individual’s self-image and self-worth influence their decision to deceive.

How much do we lie?

In an experiment from his book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely, asked participants to solve as many number matrices as possible in a limited time, and paid them for each correct answer.  One group worked in a room in which an experimenter was present while they worked and averaged 4 out of 20. A second group worked without an experimenter present, tallied their correct answers, shreded their answer sheets and told the experimenter in another room how many they got right. These participants averaged 6 out of 20—a 10% increase. This effect held when the amount paid per correct answer was increased from 25 to 50 cents and to $1, $2 and $5. Interestingly, however, when participants could earn $10 per correct answer the amount of lying decreased slightly. Ariely argues this is a form of self-deception: small lies allow us to inflate our self-image and still retain the perception of being an honest person, but big lies do not.

Why lying may not be a good idea

Neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote in his 2013 book Lying that, “To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us.”  Living in that boundary prevents us from knowing who we are and sharing it with others.  This is certainly the case on social media as the boundary is further emboldened through the omission of context and tone. 

Yet, it’s also true that the vast amounts of data that technology and online companies are collecting and keeping means that there is more and more evidence to undermine the lies we tell.  It’s now possible to compare what someone says with what the data shows. 

Zilla van den Born, a Dutch student, fabricated a trip to Southeast Asia, posting photographs of herself sitting beside a Buddhist monk, snorkeling, and eating the local food while, in reality, she never left Amsterdam. She later told Dutch journalists, after being found out, that she carried out the scheme for her university to draw attention to how people can engineer what they share on social media. On a more serious note, in one Canadian lawsuit, an 18 year old girl, Fotini Kourtesis, sued a man who rear-ended her car as she drove to work. Kourtesis claimed the accident left her with chronic pain and a loss of enjoyment of life.  The opposing side, however, showed the court photographs of her dancing and being lifted into the air by her brother post-accident as evidence that she was unharmed. She testified that the photographs had been carefully posed for the camera, but the judge ruled that it didn’t matter because it demonstrated she had not experienced any ‘loss of enjoyment’ of life.

So, it might be tempting to lie and present ourselves as happier than we really are, but it may not be worth it if we are one day exposed as charlatans. The temporary boosts to our ego may not survive the enduring destruction of our in-person reputations.

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Photograph by Esther Vargas via Flickr

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