Courtesy: New York Times
WHEN the 24-year-old painter from Indianapolis received a message from his girlfriend that she was out with the girls, the brief text on his phone gave no grounds for suspicion. Months later, post-breakup, he learned she was cheating on him that night.
It was not the only time she tried to deceive by text, he said. “If she wasn’t physically in front of me during a discussion, I had no real way to judge as to whether or not she was telling the truth,” said the painter, who was granted anonymity because his ex-girlfriend wasn’t around to give her side.
Many believe it is easier to lie by text than by phone or in person, but emerging research indicates that’s not necessarily true.
We’ve always lied; new technologies are merely changing the ways and the reasons we lie. Witness the “butler lie,” a term coined by Cornell University researchers in 2009 to describe lies that politely initiate and terminate instant messaging conversations. (“Gotta go, boss is coming!”) Like butlers, they act as social buffers, telling others that we are at lunch when we are just avoiding them.
Being constantly reachable makes butler lies necessary to many people, and the Cornell researchers concluded in a subsequent study that ambiguities inherent in traditional texting also made them easier. Texters typically do not know when outgoing messages are read, where their recipients are or what they are doing.
Of 5,396 texts examined, 10.7 percent were deceptive. Of those, 30 percent were butler lies, compared with less than 20 percent of lies by instant message.
Yet technology is already laying siege to the butler lie. Services like BlackBerry Messenger enable mutual users to track when their texts are read, effectively torpedoing the “sorry, phone died last night” excuse. “Friend tracking” applications like Google Latitude allow people to geographically pinpoint their friends’ mobile phones. So much for “stuck in traffic” when you really overslept.
“Butler lies and lying-and-texting in general is based on ambiguity that the medium gives you,” said Jeremy Birnholtz, a communications professor at Cornell and one of the studies’ authors. “As you start to threaten that ambiguity, it changes the way that you lie.”
People are already adapting, finding how to circumvent BlackBerry Messenger and read texts undetected, Dr. Birnholtz said. Others form “lie clubs,” groups who back up one another’s phony texts.
But if technology has spawned new ruses, are we actually lying more? So far, researchers say no.
“Texting and other digital forms of communicating are really new, so our beliefs about them tend to be more on the negative/suspicious side,” Jeff Hancock, a communications professor and another author of the Cornell studies, wrote in an e-mail.
Dr. Hancock said he believed people actually lie more often by phone than by text, aware that lies are reproducible once spelled-out and sent.
“Saying anything that you don’t want shared in a text is a terrible idea,” he said. “You’re essentially giving the target of your lie a copy of the lie.”