Emails feel so transient, so disembodied, that we’re more tempted to lie when sending them compared with writing with pen and paper. That’s according to Charles Naquin and colleagues who tested the honesty of students and managers as they played financial games.
Forty-eight graduate business students were presented with an imaginary $89 kitty and had to choose how much they’d tell their partner was in the kitty, and how much of the kitty to share with their partner. Crucially, some participants shared this information by email, others by pen and paper. You guessed it – those who shared the info by email were more likely to lie about the kitty size (92 per cent of them did vs. 63 per cent of the pen and paper group), and they were also more unfair in how they shared the money. Participants in the email group also said they felt more justified in misrepresenting the amount of money to their partner.
A follow-up study ramped up the ecological validity. One hundred and seventy-seven full-time managers took part in a group financial game. Participants formed teams of three with each member pretending to be the manager of a science project negotiating for grant money. This game was played with real money, the players all knew each other, and any lies would be revealed afterwards. Once again, players who shared information by email were more likely to lie and cheat than were players who shared information by pen and paper.
Charles Naquin’s team said their results chime with previous research showing, for example, that peer performance reviews are more negative when conducted online rather than on paper. ‘Moving paper tasks online either within or across organisational boundaries should be undertaken with caution,’ they said. For example: ‘Taxes using the increasingly popular e-filing system could be even more fraught with deception than the traditional paper forms.’
Naquin, C., Kurtzberg, T., & Belkin, L. (2010). The finer points of lying online: E-mail versus pen and paper. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95 (2), 387-394 DOI: 10.1037/a0018627