Man with very long noseI don’t want to shock you, but people lie online; yes, people tell fibs. We all lie, indeed lying is a necessary part of human existence. Think of what would happen if you told the truth to questions such as “does my bum look big in this?”

However, in normal day-to-day conversations we can hear tone of voice or see facial expressions that give us clues as to whether someone is fibbing. That said, we are not very good at spotting those clues – most of the time we are as good at spotting lies as if we flipped a coin to determine whether or not someone was fibbing. However, it doesn’t stop us trying to assess whether or not the wool is being pulled over our eyes.

Online we cannot assess body language or tone of voice, other than in video conversations, for instance. Generally, all we have to go on is what is typed in an email, or a text message, or a Tweet.

New research, though, shows a possible way of detecting lies online. If you get a message back quickly the chances of it being a lie are reduced. In text messaging, for instance, we tend to take 10% more time when we lie than when we tell the truth. Also, when using online messaging systems we tend to edit more when we lie than when we are truthful.

So, one way of knowing whether people lie to you is how quickly they respond. That only works, though, in synchronous conversations, such as on Twitter or Facebook. When the conversation is via email, or on a web forum, the time lag might not indicate someone is lying.

However, the additional editing and time taken when people construct messages could be programmed into software which could then indicate in your email system a percentage chance of something being a lie. Your email program could highlight emails which were edited and re-edited and took additional time to write, thereby suggesting they contained fibs. The same kind of software could be written into Facebook or Twitter, enabling us to see at a glance whether something was potentially a porkie.

A system like this, however, would be problematic because it would mean that people with poor typing skills would be discriminated against, as would people who want to ensure they produce perfect prose. They may not be lying at all, but just edit their messages to produce perfection. Similarly, people who need to lie to protect commercial interests, for instance, would be spotted.

Technology may well be able to spot liars better than human beings, but it may not be a good idea. After all, there must be an evolutionary advantage in us not being able to naturally detect fibbers. If we started to be more accurate in spotting liars, we may find we are at some kind of disadvantage.


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