May 17, 2012 at 8:30 PM ET
It may seem that text messages, so impersonal and convenient, aren't the best platform on which to ask sometimes-sensitive questions. But a new study shows that people seem to be less likely to garnish the truth or round it off in texts, at least compared to over the phone.
Michael Schober of The New School and Fred Conrad from the University of Michigan shared the preliminary results of their study, which compared answers given when asked a question over the phone or over text. The over 600 iPhone-owning respondents showed a reliable and surprising trend. As Conrad said, in The New School's news release:
The preliminary results of our study suggest that people are more likely to disclose sensitive information via text messages than in voice interviews ... We believe people give more precise answers via texting because there's just not the time pressure in a largely asynchronous mode like text that there is in phone interviews.
The questions weren't very revealing, but still something that a person might fudge just a little when asked point-blank. How many times a week do you exercise? How many times in the last 30 days did you have more than five drinks on the same occasion? Respondents tended to answer more honestly when replying by text than on the phone — i.e. they reported drinking more and exercising less.
And it's not just when people have time to reflect; text messaging got more honest answers even when people were shopping or walking around and had to multitask in order to respond.
The researchers refrain from speculating, in the paper at least, on the reason for this honesty factor, except as Conrad points out, to say that respondents had a little extra time to compose an answer when texting. But in-person communication is a complex social dance, and it may be that people are able to answer more honestly in text or chat because they don't have to worry about the immediate social consequences of an "unpopular" answer, like admitting they don't exercise enough.
When asked about this, they agreed that it is complex, and that embarrassment and the fear of being confronted with ones actions are reasons commonly cited by scholars in the area.
Schober notes that there still "in the early stages" of analysis, but the trend is very clear. They are looking into how behavior may differ between generations, or between frequent and infrequent texters. And as for different cultures, they admit that "Texting norms differ cross-culturally but how this might affect responding to surveys, we just don't know."
For now, it seems to be clear, though: texting someone when they'd like to meet might get you a "5:15," while asking on the phone might get you "five-ish." For many, knowing how to get the better answer in a situation like that is findings enough.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.