Blabbing To Nobody

People may lie when asked if they use pornography or drugs, but they are less apt to do so when questioned by a machine.

By Chris Jozefowicz, published on September 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 30, 2005

People may lie when asked if they use pornography or drugs, but
they are less apt to do so when questioned by a machine.

Using phone interviews, men and women were questioned by either a live
person, a recorded human voice or a machine-like voice. The study was conducted by
Mick Couper, an adjunct associate professor of sociology at the University of
Michigan.

Subjects admitted to more stigmatized behaviors -- such as buying or
renting pornography and smoking marijuana -- when they dealt with a recorded
or synthetic voice. It didn't matter how human-like the voice was or
whether it sounded male or female: The mere absence of a real person
appears to prompt disclosure. Some participants known to have declared
personal bankruptcy were also asked about their bankruptcy history.
Nearly 20 percent denied having declared bankruptcy to a live
interviewer, while less than 10 percent lied to a machine.

Twenty to 25 percent of participants hung up, regardless of whether
a recorded or computer-generated voice gave the survey.

But don't expect a swarm of silicon solicitations just yet. All
calls made in the study began with a live interviewer. Calls initiated
and conducted by a machine may be much less effective. "Even I hang up on
them all the time," Couper says, "and I am a survey researcher."