Nov. 28, 2011 at 9:12 AM ET
Wondering if that fabulous man you've been chatting with online is really a mountain-climbing astronaut fluent in six languages, including Latin?
According to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, chances are he's simply one of the many people who can't help stretching the truth when they hit the keyboard.
"I wouldn't say that human beings are a big pack of liars," says Robert S. Feldman, professor of psychology and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "But I would say that it's very easy to lie."
This is especially true when we go online, according to Feldman's research.
In a new paper entitled "Liar, Liar, Hard Drive on Fire: How Media Context Affects Lying Behavior," Feldman found that the closer people are to each other, the more difficult it is to lie to each other. And the further apart we are, the more the lies fly.
In his most recent study, Feldman (who's studied deception for about 30 years) put together 110 same-sex pairs of University of Massachusetts students, asking them to "get to know each other" for approximately 15 minutes. One group of students talked face-to-face, another chatted via IM and the last emailed back and forth. Then Feldman asked the students to go over a transcript (or recording) of the conversation and identity each time an untruth -- even a white lie -- was told.
"At first, almost everybody said there are no cases where [they weren't] being truthful," he says. "So we said, humor us. Eventually, what happened was that 70 percent of the people found something they said was not accurate. It was a lie. And the rate of lying was about three times greater for email than it was for face-to-face conversation."
Why is it so much easier to lie via email (or even IM) than it is to fib face-to- face?
"It's easier to lie online primarily because the psychological distance between the two people communicating is greater," he says. "When you're face-to-face, you see the person, you see their reactions to what you're saying, you know they can see you. But when you're online, you're talking to a disembodied person. You don't see their reactions to what you're saying and I think it gives you a kind of freedom to be more deceptive."
Feldman says that in his study, most of the falsehoods were of the "little white lie" category, like agreeing with someone that you liked a movie that you didn't really like. But other lies were more ambitious.
"Some would say they'd been to a certain place they'd never been or say they were a captain of their high school track team and they weren't," he says. "The lies varied in terms of how profound they really were. Some were small lies, but others were total whoppers."
Rebecca Price, a 34-year-old development officer from Seattle, admits she practiced some heavy duty online deception back in her college days.
"When AOL chat rooms were popular, I used modeling shots of Meg Ryan as my profile picture," she says. "And not one of [the guys I wrote to] ever noticed. All that mattered was that the girl in the picture was hot. I also used tell them that I was a retired model. Or sometimes I would tell them I was a single mom working at the local Dairy Queen or Whataburger. This was my favorite story."
Feldman says that lying not only comes easily to human beings, we almost come to expect -- and want it.
"We don't necessarily want to hear the truth," he says. "A lot of the time, there's almost a kind of conspiracy between people. If someone says you did a terrific job on a presentation, you don't want to question them. You totally accept it. You might have suspicions that it wasn't such a great presentation, but why delve into that?"