Is Everyone Really Lying Online?
New research shows that it's common, but not as common as we think.
Posted Sep 06, 2016
New research on deception online is leading to some headlines with claims such as “The internet is a web of lies.” But in order to evaluate these statements, we can’t just look at this study in isolation. We need to think about the relationship between online lying and offline lying before we can draw any specific conclusions about lying online.
In an earlier post, I reviewed much of the research on online deception, highlighting two important factors: The communication venue and the topics people lie about. Overall, the research shows that most online lies are pretty minor and involve exaggerations, not outright fictions. But we are more likely to lie about our physical appearance, and we tend to be especially honest in how we represent our personality. We are also less likely to lie on social media, perhaps because the information we post on these sites is available to a wide range of people, many of whom we interact with on a regular basis — which makes it difficult to be particularly dishonest without being caught in an embarrassing lie.
In a new study, recently published in Computers in Human Behavior, Drouin and colleagues surveyed 272 adults about their own online honesty and their perceptions of others’ honesty.1 Participants were asked to rate how often they are, or would be, completely honest in four online venues (social media; anonymous chat rooms; dating websites; and sexual websites such as Craigslist Casual Encounters, Ashley Madison, or sexual fetish chat rooms), using a scale from 1 = never to 5 = always. They also evaluated how often they thought other people were honest on each type of website, using the same rating scale.
The results showed that people are the most honest on social media, followed by dating sites, anonymous chat rooms, and then sexual websites. Overall, 32% reported they would always be honest on social media, and 26% reported they would always be honest on dating sites. Sexual websites garnered the lowest percentage of people reporting they would always be honest, at just 16%. On the 5-point rating scale, the average rating for honesty frequency was between 3.12 (for sexual websites) and 4.02 (for social media).
This pattern makes sense, given what we know about each of these online venues as a social milieu. The more that the online interaction represented interactions with those who were tied to offline life, or that the audience was likely to include close others, the less likely people were to lie. Our interactions on social media are targeted at a large number of people, most of whom know us offline, and many of whom are close to us (e.g., family, good friends). Dating website interactions are primarily with strangers who are not connected to our offline lives, but most online daters hope to meet someone who will eventually become a very connected and integral part of their life. Anonymous websites and sexual websites represent the most fleeting interactions. Thus, this is consistent with past research that shows that we lie more to strangers and acquaintances than friends and family.2 However it should be noted that greater anonymity in online environments can lead to either more lying, or its opposite, more self-disclosure.3
It is also important to note that for some types of websites, participants were merely reporting on how likely they would be to lie if they used the sites, even though they do not use them. While almost all of the respondents (99%) used social media, this was not the case for the other three types of websites examined: 71% had used anonymous chat rooms, 55% had used online dating, and only 29% used sexual websites. So when it comes to online dating, and especially the sexual communication websites, for many participants, these reports are of how they think they might behave in a situation that they have never actually experienced. Thus we can't be sure if these individuals are over or underestimating how much they would lie. It is also possible that their perceptions of how they would behave in these novel situations is especially colored by how they think others would behave since they don't have their own personal experiences to draw on (This interpretation is supported by the finding that the discrepancy between one's own lying and one's perceptions of others' lying was smaller for dating and sexual websites than for social media and chat rooms).
Now let’s think about the raw numbers a bit. The idea that only 16% to 32% of us are completely honest online may seem horrifyingly low. But remember that that is the percentage of people who report that they are always completely honest. How honest are we really in all of our social interactions, not just online? Bella DePaulo’s classic research from the mid-1990s, documenting daily lying, found that college students lied in 1 out of 3 social interactions and adults from a local community sample lied in 1 out of every 5 interactions, with participants overall telling an average of 2 lies per day.4 Given that, it is hardly surprising that only a small minority of us are always completely honest online.
This new research confirms what DePaulo found 20 years and Dr. House’s motto: “Everybody lies,” and this is true online and offline. The good news is that most of these lies are minor.4,5 Although the Internet can make extreme deception a lot easier, and the creation of completely false identities is more likely to occur online than offline, “catfishing” is still not a common aspect of most people’s online behavior. For example, in a study of online daters, only 16% ever encountered a “catfish,” attempting to scam them for money, among the many people they met (and presumably each individual scammer contacts large numbers of users, meaning that a small number of catfish are likely responsible for victimizing many people).6
The results also showed that participants expected others to be significantly less honest than themselves. Even though the percentage of participants who indicated they would always be honest was between 16% and 32%, only 0 to 2% expected that others were almost always honest on these websites. This shows that we are likely to perceive more deception online than their actually is. And with headlines claiming the Internet is a “web of lies,” it is hardly surprising that many people feel that way. This may be a case of pluralistic ignorance, a phenomenon where we have false perceptions about how others behave, and bring our own behavior in line with our faulty impression of the norms. So ultimately our tendency to overestimate others’ lying online could cause us to cut ourselves more slack when it comes to our own online honesty. And in fact, 10% of the survey respondents who reported lying said they did so because everybody else lies online.
So we should take what people tell us online with a grain of salt, especially in anonymous online forums where it's harder to verify people's identities. But we should also realize that few of us are completely honest in any of our interactions, online or offline, and that many of us are likely to be overly suspicious of what others tell us online.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior, and read more of her articles on Close Encounters.
1 Drouin, M., Miller, D., Wehle, S. M. J., & Hernandez, E. (2016). Why do people lie online? “Because everyone lies on the internet.” Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 134-142.
2 DePaulo, B. M., & Kashy, D. A. (1998). Everyday lies in close and casual relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 63-79.
3 Joinson, A. N., & Dietz-Uhler, B. (2002). Explanations for the perpetration of and reactions to deception in a virtual community. Social Science Computer Review, 20, 275-289.
4 DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979-995.
5 Zimbler, M., & Feldman, R. S. (2011). Liar, liar, hard drive on fire: How media context affects lying behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(10), 2492-2507.
6 Buchanan, T., & Whitty, M. T. (2014). The online dating romance scam: Causes and consequences of victimhood. Psychology, Crime & Law, 20, 261-283.