“The Future of Lying”

 Author: Jeff Hancock

Presentation: “The Future of Lying”

Review By: Lauren Liebe

Date: 24 April 2013


It’s a common assumption that the advent of the Internet and electronic communication has made it easier than ever for us to deceive one another. Without the visual tells of body language, it is often difficult to read emotion, much less intention or honesty. Lying is, as Jeff Hancock notes, “central to the human experience.”

Electronic communication certainly allows different kinds of lies than we are used to encountering in our face-to-face communications. Hancock points out three different kinds of strictly modern lying: relationship-buffering lies such as “I’m on my way” sent in a quick text message, fake reviews and endorsements written by the creator of the product being reviewed, and paid-to-produce reviews which can be written in the thousands and can skew consumer perceptions of products and services.

Is it true, then, that we lie more frequently when we have the convenient distance of technology to hide behind? Hancock doesn’t think so, and he has several studies to back him up. In one study, it was found that people lie less in email than over phone conversations or even in face-to-face interaction. Online resumes, such as those found on linkedin.com, also tend to be more honest than paper resumes. In another study, a group of people were asked to judge the personality of a mutual friend. A group of strangers was then asked to judge the same individual’s personality based upon his or her Facebook profile. In most cases, these two assessments were fairly equal, suggesting that we are actually more truthful in our online personas than is often believed. A final study looked at online dating profiles and found that while most users do tell lies, they are often only small lies (overestimating height by a few inches, for example), and usually these people only lie about one or two aspects of their appearance or personality.

Evidence suggests, then, that technological communication appears to be more honest, not less, despite popular assumptions. Hancock poses a theory for why this may be so. He suggests that we have evolved to expect no permanent record of our words. As time has progressed, however, and writing, publishing, and electronic media have become increasingly central to our daily lives, we have come to realize that our words can, perhaps too easily, be made permanent. Truth is becoming more of a necessity. Now that our words exist as fixed records, they can be broken apart and analyzed. To end his presentation, Hancock shows two examples of hotel reviews, one real and one fake, and asks the audience to attempt to determine which is which. He then explains that when we lie online (at least in reviews) we tend to use language differently, focusing more on our (faked) personal experiences rather than on the products or services being reviewed. Because such lying has become easier to spot, we, as a whole, are becoming more truthful.



I found this talk rather interesting, because it is suggesting that the assumptions we make about the honesty and validity of online communication are wrong. While Hancock does make a number of interesting points, I’m not sure that I entirely buy his argument. People, in general, may not lie as much on line, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not easier to lie through technological communication. Those of us who are inherently dishonest will likely feel little guilt about deceiving their fellow Internet users. Though methods of communication that reflect directly upon us—such as Facebook—or mimic face-to-face communication—such as email—seem to encourage users to be honest, I feel that this is unlikely to carry over to forms of electronic communication that allow users to retain some level of anonymity.

A quick search on scams run through blogging sites gets several million hits, and within the first two pages there are mentions of scams supposedly benefiting victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and recent natural disasters, offering fake housing loans, and false sweepstakes. It is clear that the Internet does, to some extent, facilitate lying.

What does all of this mean for the digital humanities? In his talk, Hancock briefly touches upon the idea that the mercurial nature of the Internet is partially responsibility for our honesty, especially in scholarly or professional venues. If we aren’t, someone more truthful can easily correct our work retroactively. Though Wikipedia is often not viewed as a “scholarly” source in academic work, it is this kind of crowd sourcing that makes Wikipedia valuable. Mistakes can be corrected quickly, points of contention can be debated (sometimes bitterly) in a public forum, and records of all the changes made to the site are recorded. People who maliciously post false information can be banned from the site.

In more scholarly works, this kind of crowd sourcing allows for greater collaboration, but it also creates the opportunity for scholars to correct each other’s mistakes, debate ideas, and provide more comprehensive work than is often possible in traditional publication. This is, by no means, a perfect system, but Hancock’s research suggests that Digital Humanities will become a more viable field as scholars and students become more comfortable with trusting potentially changeable online scholarship, trusting that online, most people are honest when it counts.

3 thoughts on ““The Future of Lying”

  1. Rebecca Fil

    Your theory review was really interesting, Laura.

    It reminded me of a UAB study on obesity I recently read about, where Southerners were found not to be the nation’s fattest folks, only because they don’t fudge the numbers on their weight and height during CDC surveys (http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/04/people_in_the_south_are_not_so.html#incart_river_default). Interestingly enough, Midwesterners have a higher obesity rate than the top two CDC-rated states, Mississippi and Alabama. I’ve also heard that Midwesterners have the highest rate of marriages that don’t end in divorce or separation, so that just proves my point that Midwesterners are really good liars.

    I also liked your response, and I agree, the reason we lie less may be because we’re just honest. And it doesn’t even have to be honesty coming from a code of ethics. Our world is much more truthfully documented than the world of people two generations ago. I mean, look at bank robbers. The reason why Bonnie and Clyde existed in the 1930s and not today is because you can’t just run into a bank, threaten everyone at gunpoint, run out with bags of money, and drive away. There are security cameras, public/criminal records that are more accessible, RFID tags in money, and so on that would get in your way. It’s so much harder now to disappear off the face of the earth than before, and maybe growing up in that “Big Brother is watching you… jk but seriously tho” climate has turned us into honest citizens.

    But I do think there’s a difference between lying and reporting mistaken information/being misinformed that you should take into account in your discussion of how it affects digital humanities. Saying that Frankenstein’s personality was partially inspired by Lord Byron’s bipolar disorder would indeed draw criticism and demands for fact-checking, but it’s not lying–it’s theorizing. Saying that you are a 23-year-old woman on ChristianMingle.com when you are in fact a 54-year-old man is lying. It’s about as big a difference as slander and libel.

    In terms of your presentation, I think you could have let us see maybe a minute of the TED talk, but I understand in the interest of time you wanted to move quickly. I would like to see a link to the Chicago hotel reviews as well, if you can find it. Overall, great job!

  2. Alex Pieschel

    I’m just riffing off of your summary here, but your response made me wonder if Hancock’s argument might benefit from more specific language, such as a distinction between “scamming” and “lying.” It seems like the two could easily get confused in this discussion because they’re pretty similar. I think the internet definitely makes scamming more likely, as you point out. As for more abstract concepts like self-presentation (which self are we talking about anyway?), that is more difficult to pin down, especially on the internet. An online resume is a very specific kind of presentation of self, and it makes sense that you wouldn’t lie on your online resume because you’re probably not imagining a specific person/company looking at it. It’s just “out there.” The online dating profile actually matches up with this logic nicely, I think. The second and third types of lies that he talks about sound like disingenuous business practices–a kind of marketing that acts like customer response that is pretty close to a “scam.” The internet definitely makes this more possible. The first, well, that just sounds like how normal people have always acted. I think your response here is thorough and thoughtful. I would echo your skepticism and reiterate that anonymity is an important missing piece of this talk—–a Facebook profile is way different from an anonymous Youtube comment! The writing in this piece is strong, so I don’t have any stylistic or grammatical suggestions. It might benefit from further discussion of different types of lying, but that’s really all I’ve got. Nice work!

  3. Cassandra Nelson

    I agree with Alex. The real issue with this talk is that it essentially groups every act of dishonesty under the heading of “lying.” In actuality, there is a big difference between companies or hackers “scamming” consumers and individuals “lying” about themselves to other individuals. I also find it interesting that Hancock chose to look at Facebook profiles as part of his study. It seems to me that the lying that generally occurs in Facebook profiles is a very specific and sometimes unintentional kind of lying. I mean, sure, the people who call themselves 23-year-old women when they are 54-year-old mean (to use Rebecca’s example) are obviously engaging in an intentional and probably malicious lie. However, it is hard to say if people fudge information about their height or personality because they want to present themselves as something they’re not or because that is how they genuinely view themselves. I think it’s fairly safe to say that most people have somewhat skewed perceptions of their physical appearances and personalities. I know that if you asked me how tall I was, I would say 5’6″ without hesitation because that is how tall I think I am. In reality, though, I have been to the doctor for a checkup (the only time my height ever gets measured) in about 5 years and thus don’t know for sure that I am in fact 5’6″. But at the same time, I wouldn’t consider this a lie because I genuinely believe it to be true or at least close to the truth. I think that their are too many nuances involved with lying, what it is and what it is not, to make such a black-and-white call about how people lie on the internet.

    Overall, I very much like your review. I agree with Rebecca that it would have been nice to see a clip of the talk or links to some of the information Hancock references, but I understand that you had a limited amount of time in which to present. Also, I would have liked to see some more specific examples of how you think this applied to DH, such as the pros/cons that might exist using online publications and/or reviews (like the one used by the Shakespeare Quarterly), but again, I understand that time and space are both limited. Finally, I just want to say that you are an excellent writer, and this is a very well-written and strong review. I didn’t notice any stylistic errors and only two grammatical ones: 1) you may want to check your second paragraph for some punctuation and/or wording issues (there was just something about it that made it difficult to read); and 2) in your next to last paragraph, I think you meant to write “responsible” instead of “responsibility. Otherwise, great job!

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