February 26, 2004

Ya Wanna Lie? Use the Phone.

Print More

People are twice as likely to tell lies in phone conversations as they are in emails, according to recent findings by Prof. Jeff Hancock, communication.

Hancock conducted a study using 30 volunteers from Communication classes here at Cornell. He asked the students to record how many lies they told during any conversation lasting ten minutes or more throughout a one-week period. The students also kept track of the communication medium they used when they lied, including telephone, instant message, e-mail, or face-to-face conversation.

The results were surprising. Subjects told lies in 14 percent of e-mails, 21 percent of instant messages, 27 percent of face-to-face contact and a whopping 37 percent of phone calls.

One might have guessed that e-mails contained the highest percentage of lies due to the impersonal and detached nature of the Internet. But the telephone won by a landslide as the highest lie-producing medium. Why? Hancock suggests two explanations: first, e-mails are recorded whereas telephone calls are not, and second, phone calls are instant, or what Hancock calls “real time.”

According to Hancock, most lies we tell on a daily basis are spontaneous. They are responses to such questions as, “Do you like my tie?” or “Why didn’t you return my call?” Face-to-face conversation and telephone calls often cause a situation where one person is put on the spot and lies in order to avoid conflict. Such situations rarely come up when using a more prolonged medium, such as e-mail.

E-mail lies, according to Hancock, are usually explanatory and premeditated. “Actually,” he said, “they are most often written to professors as explanations for incomplete or late assignments!”

The reason that face-to-face lies occurred significantly less than phone call lies is due to the barrier of physical space created by the telephone, according to Hancock. It is easier to lie on the phone than it is to lie to someone’s face, Hancock said.

The students lied 1.5 to 2 times per day, on average. Many of the student volunteers were surprised by this high number. But, according to Hancock, most of the lies that people tell are not bad. They are either trivial lies, benefiting us, or white lies, benefiting someone else. “Lying is a sort of social lubrication; it often makes interacting easier,” Hancock said. “I want to emphasize the fact that most of the lies we tell are harmless.”

Hancock was invited to present his study at a premier conference in Vienna this April.


The results of Hancock’s research could have a significant impact on the communication mediums used in educational and especially professional settings. The phone might be the best medium for sales employees who are encouraged to stretch the truth, but e-mails would be better for workers where honesty is a priority.

Archived article by Missy Kurzweil