January 19, 2011

Professors Say Deception is Common in Text Messages

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About 10 percent of instant messages and Short Message Service text messages are deceptive in some way, according to a recent study by two Cornell professors. One-fifth of those messages, or two percent of all messages, are “butler lies” — the lies people often tell to save time or to preserve others’ feelings. These figures suggest that butler lies occur on a regular basis.According to Prof. Jeremy Birnholtz, communications, the idea for this study emerged in 2007 when he and Prof. Jeff Hancock, communications, combined their interests in time management through online interaction and how online deception is used to preserve relationships. With the help of a $460,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and a team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers, Birnholtz and Hancock have examined butler lies in the form of IM, SMS and BlackBerry messages, as well as messaging systems and calendars used in more professional environments.In the two main studies, the professors examined SMS and IM-based communication because they are currently two of the most common and popular forms of text-based communication, according to Jamie Guillory grad, a summer research assistant for Hancock.  Guillory added, however, that the two forms of communication carry different assumptions with respect to location awareness.“The key message is that media make certain things ambiguous in communication — what the sender of a message is doing, where they are, when they read a message. People sometimes take advantage of that ambiguity in crafting deceptive explanations for their behavior that may be more polite than the truth,” Birnholtz said.Some examples of such communications include ending an IM conversation with the excuse that “it is dinner time.” These explanations work simply because the other person does not have enough information to completely gauge the truth, according to the professors.“That ambiguity helps manage the relationship,” Birnholtz said.Despite the transparency in location and activity provided by new available technologies, people are skilled at developing new strategies to maintain their relationships, Guillory said.“Though certain new technologies may not provide the opportunity to opt out of sharing this information, people adapt to these limitations by developing their own barriers to sharing availability information,” Guillory said. By comparing the two studies, the two also found that butler lies were used differently in different media. For example, Birnholtz noted that IM was more conversational than texting, and that IM conversations usually began with a clear intention. On the other hand, text messages were generally used more often for coordination and for asking specific questions. According to study results, conversations on IM also began and ended with butler lies more often than in SMS text messaging.“[After hearing about the results of these studies], I’m not surprised by any of these statistics. Thinking back, I [sometimes] do tell white lies or exaggerate in texts,” Mahina Wang ‘13 said. “For example, if I’m running late I might tell a friend five minutes rather than 10 or 15.”Through these studies, members of the team have also become more aware of their own interactions with others.“One of the great things about this study is that it is relatable to a variety of people — as the study shows, telling butler lies using technological communication tools [occurs frequently enough] that [it] may play a positive role in interpersonal relationships,” said Lindsay Reynolds grad.Birnholtz also noted the effect that butler lies may have on the way that future communications systems will be designed, citing functions within sites that allow the sharing of data regarding one’s current location and proximity to others. Information shared through social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace also allow for reduced ambiguity, and therefore changes the way that people manage their relationships.“We don’t think it’s always useful to share more information … You may be okay sharing your location with some friends, but not others… sharing photos with people who were also at a party, but not your parents or future employers,” Birnholtz said. “We’re thinking toward better ways of helping people manage their information.”

Original Author: Cindy Huynh