Spotting the Internet 'Liar'

How can you spot a liar online? Some telltale signs of online deception from Cornell professor of communication Jeff Hancock.

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TRICIA McKINNEY: You're listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart. We're on digital, FM, satellite…

ALISON STEWART, host:

You are not Alison Stewart. I'm Alison Stewart.

McKINNEY: Probably could've gotten away with that on the blog, though.

STEWART: Yeah, but on the radio, not so much. Editor Tricia McKinney, be gone with you. Back to the control room.

See? It's easy to get away with lying online. But our guest, Jeff Hancock might be able to figure you out. He's a professor of communications at Cornel and director of the Computer-Mediated Communication Research Lab. Is that right, Jeff?

Dr. JEFF HANCOCK (Communications, Cornel; Director, Computer-Mediated Communications Research Laboratory): Well said. Yes.

STEWART: All right. He has been studying online deception. So, Jeff, what are the telltale signs of an online liar?

Dr. HANCOCK: Well, it depends on the kind of lie they're telling, but one of the main ones is reduced first-person references. So that's when people talk about themselves. So if I were to say I came to New York yesterday, maybe that would be truthful. And if I said something like got into New York yesterday. Now, you can see I dropped the first person singular there - the I. And that's related to when people tend to be deceptive.

STEWART: But they tend to write a little bit more.

Dr. HANCOCK: They do. And the sites that we've looked at online when people are lying, they use more words, which is a little bit strange, but we think that it's because they're really trying to convince you of their lie. And because they can type and take their time to do it, they take more words and use more words to convince you.

STEWART: We were talking earlier, and I said I had done a story about how little kids learn to lie. And they learn early on to lie to avoid punishment. If self-preservation is part of lying, you don't want to tell your boss you messed up on the report because you're afraid you're getting fired or docked…

Dr. HANCOCK: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: …what kind of punishment are people afraid online that they would lie about who they are and their accomplishments?

Dr. HANCOCK: Right. Well, most of our online activities are social. So, yeah, we use it to search for information, but we also use it to communicate with our friends, talk about who we are and do things together. So the number one punishment when you get caught lying online is ostracism. You are worried about people thinking that you're a bad person and not wanting to talk to you anymore.

STEWART: Or maybe in the case of some of these dating sites, that you're not as attractive…

Dr. HANCOCK: Right.

STEWART: …as you might present yourself to be.

Dr. HANCOCK: Exactly. If you lie too much, then when you actually meet the person, that's going to be a problem. And as my friend from MIT, Dan Early(ph), says, with online dating, you need to lie enough to get to coffee, but not so much you don't get to bed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: A guy at MIT said that?

Dr. HANCOCK: He's a funny guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: When people do put together these dating profiles, what kind of things do they lie about and why?

Dr. HANCOCK: Well, people tend to lie a lot in their profiles - everybody. And what we looked at were things like height and weight and age, so body and age things. And we also looked at income and status. But we found that men tend to lie about their height, and they would do what I call a strong round-up. So, if they achieve an inch, they'll add another inch. So, 5'9" and one-tenth, they'll go up to 5'10". Women tend to lie about their weight.

STEWART: I'd say age or weight.

Dr. HANCOCK: And we expected age, too. In our study, we didn't find lies about age too different between men and women, although most of our people were young. And women also lied a fair bit in their photographs. And we can say lied in that they were - the photographs were different from what they looked like more often than men. Their photographs tended to be about 18 months old, whereas men's photographs were usually, you know, seven or eight months old.

STEWART: When it comes to social networking and interfacing online, though, what if you're in a situation where you are part of a group where people actually know you? Does lying still continue?

Dr. HANCOCK: Right. So, one of the things, one of my students, Jaime Gillory and I are looking at, is if there's a social network ties. So, places like Facebook or LinkedIn, where your network is actually connected to your profile, we think that that's going to reduce deception. So, we're looking at resume writing, and it turns out that in resumes, lots of lies, lots of little exaggerations and omissions. And we're examining whether you do your resume in a traditional format - like a paper format - or you do it on a social networking site like LinkedIn, whether you lie more in one or the other. And our hypothesis is that you lie more in the traditional one than you will online, because you don't want your friends, your boss, your colleagues to see, like, oh, you didn't actually work at that place for that long.

STEWART: Have you gotten an opportunity to look at 90 Day Jane?

Dr. HANCOCK: I haven't. I haven't.

STEWART: Okay, I wondered about that. There was a Web site that was running around for a while, and this woman was claiming that she was going to commit suicide in 90 days. It appears to have turned out to be a - some sort of art project…

Dr. HANCOCK: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: …of hers. I was curious. Maybe we'll check back with you later, see what you think about it, if there's anything that you would have picked up right away.

Dr. HANCOCK: Right. I would love to, we can do a little analysis of that. But there's more and more of these. So you may have heard of Lonely Girl 15.

STEWART: Sure.

Dr. HANCOCK: So, this also turned out to be an art project that was in, some people's view, a mass deception in the same way that perhaps 90 Day Jane. And so this is this idea that people are portraying things to be sort of amateur, when in fact there are professionals behind this, and it's designed entertainment. We've seen this in political campaigns as well, where agencies are working to put up amateur-looking ads that go against other politicians, but they're actually being funded by professionals. So, it's really fascinating to see pros acting amateurish on the Internet to sort of hide their deceptions.

STEWART: Anything else in your research that really struck you that you think our audience might be interested in?

Dr. HANCOCK: Yeah. There's one thing that's been coming up again and again, is that when people are lying, they do seem to change their language a little bit. But the cooler thing, I think, is the person being lied to also changes. So, when you're being lied to, you - in our studies - we see that they use first-person singular less. They use more words. They actually ask more questions. But then when we ask them, was that person lying or not? They (unintelligible). This has been shown in study after study. We're really bad at telling if somebody is lying. But their linguistic system actually did change with deception, so it suggests that there is some change, but their conscious mind can't access it to tell if this person's lying or not. So perhaps an upshot there is, trust your gut. But it looks like we still can't use that information, but I think that's pretty fascinating.

STEWART: Do people lie in email, or has it become so much a part of our life that you know better than to try to say, I'm at work when you're on your BlackBerry at the beach?

Dr. HANCOCK: Right. Well, I think people did lie on email a lot, and they all got - frequently got busted. So the people at Enron, lots of problems there. Martha Stewart found out about email lies the hard way. In our studies, we get people to record their lies for seven days, and then which media did it take place. And then we're seeing, often, that the place where people lied the least is email, because they're becoming aware that what I say in an email lasts. But the place where people lie a lot is the telephone. So the cell phone has made it easy to lie about where we are, who we're with, what we're doing, all of that. And so, the cell phone really is the liar's best friend.

STEWART: Has working on this project and doing this research, has it made you more astute about finding out if someone's lying in person?

Dr. HANCOCK: I'm not sure. I'm pretty terrible at telling lies, which is why I'm studying it, I suppose. But it made me more aware of how often we all do lie and that most of the lies we tell are pretty small, little lies.

STEWART: Did you lie about anything today at all?

Dr. HANCOCK: Hmm, so far, I think I've been pretty truthful. But I'm sure I'll lie at some point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Jeff Hancock of Cornell University, thanks for coming in.

Dr. HANCOCK: Thank you, Alison. It was a lot of fun.

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