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Texters Answer Sensitive Questions Honestly

girl sending a text message on her cellphone
Texting while walking could change you gait enough to cause accidents, a new study finds.

Whether asked by a computer or a real person, people answer survey questions more honestly when they are asked with a text, instead of a call, a new study suggests. Text is a surprisingly good way to get candid responses to sensitive questions.

"People are more likely to disclose sensitive information via text messages than in voice interviews," study researcher Fred Conrad, of the University of Michigan, said in a statement. "This is sort of surprising since many people thought that texting would decrease the likelihood of disclosing sensitive information because it creates a persistent, visual record of questions and answers that others might see."

The researchers were interested in how texting impacts the survey industry, since about one in five U.S. households no longer has a landline phone — and these people are missed in traditional surveys. Many groups of people are more likely to text than call, including teens and 20 -somethings in the United States and all age groups in many Asian and European nations.

"We believe people give more precise answers via texting because there's just not the time pressure in a largely asynchronous mode like text that there is in phone interviews," Conrad said. "As a result, respondents are able to take longer to arrive at more accurate answers."

The researchers polled approximately 600 iPhone users via text and call to see whether responses to the same questions differed depending on several variables: Whether the questions were asked via text or voice, whether a human or a computer asked the questions, and whether the environment, including the presence of other people and the likelihood of multitasking, impacted their answers.

Respondents answered several types of questions more honestly via text than speech, including questions about their exercise and drinking habits. They also answered several questions with more precise, less rounded numbers, for example, how many movies they watched or how many songs they have.

"So far it seems that texting may reduce some respondents' tendency to shade the truth or to present themselves in the best possible light in an interview — even when they know it's a human interviewer they are communicating with via text," study researcher Michael Schober, of the New School for Social Research said in a statement. "What we cannot yet be sure of is who is most likely to be disclosive in text. Is it different for frequent texters, or generational, for example?"

People are also more likely to provide thoughtful and honest responses via text messages even in busy, distracting environments, Conrad said: "This is the case even though people are more likely to be multitasking — shopping or walking, for example — when they're answering questions by text than when they're being interviewed by voice."

The researchers are still in the early stages of analyzing their data, but the findings are suggestive. The study results were presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, happening May 17 to 20 in Orlando.