How much dishonesty do you expect when interacting with people online?
Probably a lot. The anonymity that the web can provide is notorious for facilitating deception in chat rooms and other virtual venues. Even when people present their real identities online, as they often do on social media or online dating websites, we doubt the veracity of much of what they say. When the psychologist Michelle Drouin asked people to estimate the percentage of people who were always honest on social media, the average answer was 2 percent. For online dating, it dropped to zero.
This cynicism is mistaken. Despite the proliferation of blatantly false information in certain regions of the internet, research suggests that the content on many online platforms is remarkably trustworthy. In some cases, it may even be more trustworthy than communication over the phone or face-to-face.
Consider online dating sites. In a 2008 study, the communication professor Catalina Toma and her colleagues found that about 80 percent of participants with online dating profiles lied about their height, weight or age — but usually only to a very small extent (less than one inch off on height and 0.55 years on age, on average). As she explained in a 2019 paper, online daters may tell small lies “to rectify shortcomings,” but they seldom lie “indiscriminately simply because technology makes lying effortless.”
Something similar is true of the employment website LinkedIn. In a 2012 study by the communication researchers Jamie Guillory and Jeffrey Hancock, participants made either a traditional résumé, a LinkedIn profile that was publicly viewable or a LinkedIn profile that was viewable only by the researchers. It turned out that the rates of lying were roughly equal in all three groups (about three lies, on average, per résumé). LinkedIn résumés, however, were less deceptive when it came to the all-important matter of work experiences and responsibilities.
Studies of texting and Facebook use have also found surprisingly low levels of dishonesty. A 2014 study showed that when people reviewed their 30 most recent text messages, 23 percent reported no deceptive texts, and a vast majority of the remaining people reported that 10 percent or fewer of their texts were deceptive. A 2010 study found that the personality traits presented on a user’s Facebook profile were very highly correlated with the user’s actual personality traits.
What explains the low rates of dishonesty online? It could be, of course, that most of us are just honest people in general. But if that were true, deception would be rare in anonymous online settings, too, and it isn’t.
A more likely explanation is that when you identify yourself online, your behavior can become very publicly exposed. With a traditional résumé, for example, only a handful of people typically see it, and you might be tempted to slip in a falsehood or two. In contrast, hundreds of people could spot dishonest statements in a LinkedIn profile, including past employers and current colleagues.
In such situations, lying online creates a heightened reputational risk. Most of us want to be thought of by others as honest people. That reputation matters for practical reasons — a significant lie on LinkedIn or a dating website could ruin a job opportunity or a first date — but most of us also care about how others view us, even apart from any tangible consequences.
An additional, more subtle factor is that most of us want to think of ourselves as honest. In numerous cheating studies, for instance, a desire for an honest self-image has been used to explain why people often do not cheat nearly as much as they could, even when they know they won’t get caught.
Why are our expectations about the trustworthiness of online communication so far off the mark? One explanation is that when we interact with others in person, we tend to think we can detect deception pretty accurately on the basis of auditory and bodily cues (though studies have shown that we cannot). Because we often lose the ability to read those cues on the internet, researchers have hypothesized that this makes us more suspicious of what people say online.
It’s good news, of course, that deception online is not as widespread as we might expect. Yet there is a darker side to this story. If our reluctance to lie online is ultimately a function of preserving our image, then that truthfulness is motivated not by virtue but by self-interest. We are not caring about the truth for its own sake or caring about having authentic relationships with others or caring about treating people with dignity and respect. We are caring only about what will benefit us and keep our image intact.
Even when it comes to wanting to think of ourselves as honest, this is not the same thing as wanting to be an honest person. It is about being able to tell ourselves a certain flattering story, regardless of whether it is true. That is just another way of serving our self-interest.
An honest person does not only do honest things, like accurately representing herself on a dating website or Facebook. She also does them for the right reasons, which are about something larger than herself.
So while there is surprisingly little deception on many online platforms, we may nonetheless be witnessing a failure of virtue, for there also does not appear to be much evidence of true honesty. Not that we expected there would be.
Christian B. Miller (@CharacterGap) is a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, the director of the Honesty Project and the author, most recently, of “Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue.”
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