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Michael Woodworth is developing new ideas about why people are better at lying online than telling a lie face-to-face - photo by Tim Swanky
Michael Woodworth is developing new ideas about why people are better at lying online than telling a lie face-to-face - photo by Tim Swanky

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 4 | Apr. 2, 2009

What Lies Behind the Online Words?

By Raina Ducklow and Bud Mortenson

In the digital world, it’s easier to tell a lie and get away with it. That’s good news for liars, but not so good for anyone being deceived.

Michael Woodworth, a forensic psychologist at UBC Okanagan studying deception in computer-mediated environments, says offering up a fib in person might make you provide certain signals that you’re trying to deceive, but lying online avoids the physical cues that can give you away.

“When people are interacting face to face, there is something called the ‘motivational impairment effect,’ where your body will give off some cues as you become more nervous and there’s more at stake with your lie,” says Woodworth. “In a computer-mediated environment, the exact opposite occurs.”

The motivational enhancement effect – a term coined by Woodworth and colleague Jeff Hancock from Cornell University – describes how people motivated to lie in a computer-mediated environment are not only less likely to be detected, they are also actually better at being deceptive than people who are less motivated.

When telling a lie face-to-face, the higher the stakes of your deception, the more cues you may give out that you’re lying. So, what isn’t in a text message may have advantages for a would-be deceiver: text doesn’t transmit non-verbal cues such as vocal properties, physical gestures, and facial expressions.

Woodworth’s research, supported by a grant of $87,055 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, is very timely as technology and deceptive practices converge.

“Deception is one of the most significant and pervasive social phenomena of our age,” says Woodworth. “On average, people tell one to two lies a day, and these lies range from the trivial to the more serious. Deception lies in communication between friends, family, colleagues and in power and politics.”

Woodworth began his exploration by looking at how to detect deception in face-to-face environments. But he soon recognized the invasion of information and communication technologies into nearly all aspects of our lives was an opportunity to study how technology affects “digital deception” – defined as any type of technologically mediated message transmitted to create a false belief in the receiver of the message.

“Given the prevalence of both deception and communication technology in our personal and professional lives, an important set of concerns have emerged about how technology affects digital deception,” says Woodworth. He points out a growing number of individuals are falling prey to deceptive practices and information received through computer mediated contexts such as the Internet

“By learning more about how various factors affect detecting deceit in online communication, our research will certainly have important implications in organizational contexts, both legal and illegal, in the political domain, and in family life as more and more children go online.”

Killer language

Common threads detected in psychopath texts

Michael Woodworth’s research at UBC Okanagan goes beyond deception. He also studies the personality disorder of psychopathy, looking at what secrets can be gleaned from the language used by psychopaths who have killed.

After interviewing dozens of psychopaths and non-psychopaths convicted of murder, Woodworth and colleagues used electronic linguistics analysis to automatically process the interview transcripts, paying attention to the appearance of certain words, parts of speech (verbs, adjectives, nouns), and semantics – for example, looking at how often certain topics came up.

The results were revealing.

“In the transcripts of psychopathic offenders, we found twice as many terms related to eating, and 58 per cent more references to money,” says Woodworth. “And the psychopaths were significantly more likely to discuss both clothing and drinking while discussing their homicide, compared to non-psychopathic offenders.”

Woodworth has now teamed with noted forensic psychologist and deception researcher Stephen Porter, who joined UBC Okanagan from Dalhousie University last summer, and fellow forensic psychologist Jan Cioe to build a multi-disciplinary forensic science graduate program and research centre at UBC Okanagan.

Bringing together prominent forensic psychologists will benefit both the academic and wider communities, says Woodworth.

“In the back of my mind I’m always thinking ‘how is this going to potentially have some applied value?’ whether it be the community in general, or specifically for law enforcement, or by furthering our knowledge within a certain area,” he says. “All of these applications ultimately assist with both assessment and treatment.”

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Last reviewed 31-Mar-2009

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