Does Technology Make Us More Honest?

Jun 20, 2014
Originally published on August 19, 2016 5:50 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Why We Lie.

About Jeff Hancock's TEDTalk

Who hasn't sent a text message saying "I'm on my way" when it wasn't true? But some technology might actually force us to be more honest, says psychologist Jeff Hancock.

About Jeff Hancock

Jeff Hancock is an associate professor of cognitive science and communications at Cornell University. His research focuses on how we interact by email, text message and social media, seeking to understand how technology mediates communication. He argues that while the impersonality of online interaction can encourage mild fibbing, the fact that it leaves a permanent record of verifiable facts actually keeps us on the straight and narrow. Hancock has also studied how we form impressions of others online, how we manage others' impressions of ourselves, and how individual personalities interact with online groups.

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So think about how easy it is to lie now over e-mail or in a text. All this technology has made lying so much easier.

JEFF HANCOCK: For the first time in human history we can lie to each other about where we are, who we are, who we're with, what we're doing.

RAZ: This is Jeff Hancock. He's a professor of psychology at Cornell. And he studies how people lie on the Internet.

HANCOCK: Before when we talked to each other we had to be in the same room at the exact same time. And that's the crux of the paradox that we see. So it would seem that now that I can lie about all those things and I can do it without you seeing my face and any of my vocal tones or any of my body movements, that we should see a lot more lying. And I think it's wrong.

RAZ: OK. So this all might seem completely counterintuitive, right? But it turns out that the Internet might be keeping us honest. Here's Jeff's take from the TED stage.


HANCOCK: Now let's put aside the online anonymous sex chat rooms, which I'm sure none of you have been in. I can assure you there's deception there. And let's put aside the Nigerian prince who's emailed you about getting the 43 million out of the country.


HANCOCK: Let's forget about that guy too. Let's focus on the conversations between our friends and our family and our coworkers and our loved ones - those are the conversation that really matter. What does technology do to deception with those folks? One of the studies we do are called diary studies in which we asked people to record all of their conversations and all their lies for seven days. And what we can do then is then calculate how many lies took place per conversation within a medium. And the finding that we get that surprises people the most is that email is the most honest of those three media. And it really throws people for a loop because we think, woah - there's no non-verbal cues, so why don't you lie more? The phone, in contrast, the most lies. Again and again and again we see the phone as the device that people lie on the most.

RAZ: So, I mean, you would think that, like, email would be the easiest way to sort of mislead somebody right or to lie to them? And you're saying that this is the most honest form of communication?

HANCOCK: Right. It is really amazing - that being able to see the person doesn't improve your ability to detect deception. And this is really surprising to a lot of people. It was surprising to me. But it's been shown again and again and again that we don't really rely on non-verbal cues to tell if someone's lying. So the fact that those go away doesn't make email that much more difficult or easy to lie in. The reason that email I think is more honest - and again we're not talking about spam or any of that - but in our conversations with family, friends, coworkers we leave a record. We provide the recipient of the lie with the a record of the lie and that is not good for deception.

RAZ: The irony is is that as we have all these, like, different avenues, like, in different places where we can lie it is actually a lot harder because you basically, like, you triangulate. Like, if you lie there's a good chance that somebody will be able to call you out on it because so many more people are exposed to that lie or that slight exaggeration about something.

HANCOCK: Exactly right. I think that in all the ways that technology can on the surface seem like it will facilitate deception, they can't see me, I can call from anywhere, I can say anything I want, technology allows for all of that but at the same time it provides all these other tools for detecting deception in ways that 10, 20, 30 years ago we never would've thought about. But in addition to that, like you said, we have all these other tools. So Google - just think of the power that Google provides. Now imagine a Google search algorithm 20 years from now and the kinds of things and information it'll be able to parse and go through and surface for us. So this is one of the reasons when people say, well I think we're lying a lot more now and technology's a big reason for it - that's one of the reasons I just think that that's wrong. And I think that technology allows us to lie in some ways and we're certainly going to adapt and evolve our deception. But technology provides a lot of other constraints on how and when we lie.


HANCOCK: What does that mean? What's the next big idea from that? Well, as a social scientist now I can look at all those words that use to, for millennia, disappear. I can look at lies that before were said and then gone. So one thing that we did, I'll give you an example of looking at the language, is we paid people to write some fake reviews. One of these reviews is fake, the person never was at the James Hotel. The other review is real, the person stayed there. Now your task now is to decide which review is fake.

HANCOCK: So in one of the reviews it's a person talking about who they were there with.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: My husband and I stayed at the James Chicago Hotel for our anniversary. The place is fantastic.

HANCOCK: And they talked about that they went shopping and that the hotel is really lovely.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Staff very attentive and wonderful.

HANCOCK: Really, really beautiful rooms.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: We will definitely be back to Chicago and will sure be back to the James Chicago.

HANCOCK: In the second one...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: I have stayed at many hotels traveling for both business and pleasure and I can honestly say...

HANCOCK: They don't really say who they were there with. They talk a little bit more about what the room looked like...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: The rooms are modern and very comfortable.

HANCOCK: And instead of saying that they went shopping they say that the shopping was about a mile away.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Highly recommend it to both business travelers and couples.

HANCOCK: And people have a really hard time telling which one is real. In fact, your listeners may be trying to decide well was it the first one where they talked about being there with a husband or the second one where they talked about the size of the room?

RAZ: And which one was it?

HANCOCK: The first one was fake.


HANCOCK: Let me highlight a couple of things here. In the fake review. The first is that liars tend to think about narrative, they make up a story - who and what happened. And that's what happened here. Our fake reviewers talked about who they were with and what they were doing. They also used the first-person singular, I, way more than the people that actually stayed there. They were inserting themselves into the hotel review kind of trying to convince you they were there. In contrast, the people that wrote the reviews that were actually there, their bodies actually entered the physical space, they talked a lot more about spacial information. They said how big the bathroom was or they said, you know, here's how far shopping is from the hotel. We believe that every lie now, every type of lie, fake hotel reviews, fake shoe reviews, your girlfriend cheating on you with text messaging, those are all different lies - they're going to have different patterns of language. But because everything is recorded now, we can look at all those kinds of lies.

The next big thing for me, the next big idea, we can find by going way back in history to the origins of language. Most linguists agree that we started speaking somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. That's a long time ago. A lot of humans have lived since then. We've been talking I guess about fires in caves and saber tooth tigers - I don't know what they talked about. But they were doing a lot of talking. And like I said there's a lot of humans evolving, speaking. About 100 billion people in fact. What's important though is that writing only immerged about 5,000 years ago. So what that means is that all the people before there was any writing - every word that they ever said, every utterance, disappeared, no trace, evanescent, gone. So we've been evolving to talk in a way in which there is no record.

HANCOCK: So I think deception involved to disappear. And we're in this really amazing, interesting time where, yes, we can lie about many more things. People can't hear our voice or see our face but we leave a record and that record is something brand-new and I think it's something that deception is currently having to adapt to.

RAZ: Jeff Hancock, he studies deception in psychology at Cornell University. His full talk is at Our show today - ideas about why we lie, why we cheat, we why deceive and still why believe so much of what we're told. Back in a moment. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.