Thursday, February 19, 2004

Humanity’s most popular spot to tell a fib is not on the political podium, in the boudoir or at the church social.

It’s on the telephone.

“Psychologists did not expect this. Lies make us feel uncomfortable,” said Cornell University communications professor Jeff Hancock, who initially reasoned that hiding behind a phone receiver would enhance that discomfort.

“But that’s not the case,” he said.

The phone makes the fibber very comfortable indeed.

“If you call in sick to your boss and you’re dressed and ready to ski, you would succeed in lying on the phone. But if you claimed to be sick in a face-to-face conversation wearing a ski outfit, you’d obviously fail in lying,” Mr. Hancock said.

The telephone is the ultimate enabler, because it leaves those convincing “vocal and inflection cues intact,” while hiding that guilty face.

It can work both ways, of course. Receptionists and telemarketers often are coached on productive phone emotions.

“Have a smile on your face. The smile will be heard on the other end of the line, and so will a frown,” advises a Wayne State University human-resources guide.

Smiling or not, Mr. Hancock found that people lie on the phone more than in e-mails, instant messages and talking face to face. With a research team, he analyzed 1,198 sundry “social communications” between 30 college students.

The students told 310 lies in the course of their conversations with one another, or about 25 percent of the time. The lies the students told were mostly “trivial,” Mr. Hancock said.

But 37 percent of the lying took place on the telephone.

Twenty-seven percent were made in face-to-face conversations, 21 percent in instant computer messages and 14 percent via e-mails, which tend to inspire truthfulness because many are composed with care and later saved in user mailboxes.

Mr. Hancock will present his findings in April at the Computer-Human Interaction symposium in Vienna, Austria.

Meanwhile, some fibs hide good intent.

University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman determined last year that folks lie in everyday conversations to “appear likable and competent.”

He found that 60 percent of us lie at least once in a typical 10-minute conversation, although women lie “to make the person they’re talking to feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better,” Mr. Feldman noted.

About 40 percent of married Americans fib to their spouses, a Reader’s Digest poll found in 2002. But rather than news of a torrid affair, 48 percent of the respondents said they lied about how much they spent on something.

Fifteen percent fibbed about a failure at work or a child’s behavioral problem, 14 percent about being attracted to someone else and 2 percent over a secret love interest.

Lies show up in unlikely places as well. Vancouver, Canada-based handwriting analyst David Babb contends that it’s all in how someone writes their “o.”

“If there are no loops inside, you can expect that person is going to be blunt and tell you what’s on their mind,” he noted.

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