Office Emails Loaded with Lies

Office emails are more loaded with lies than traditional written communications made with pen and paper, new research suggests. Previous research has supported this notion, also finding that phone calls are even more packed with prevarication than notes are.

A pair of new studies indicates email in the workplace is more deceptive than old-fashioned writing, and that people feel quite justified in their distortions.

"There is a growing concern in the workplace over email communications, and it comes down to trust," said Liuba Belkin, co-author of the studies and an assistant professor of management at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. "You're not afforded the luxury of seeing nonverbal and behavioral cues over email. And in an organizational context, that leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation and, as we saw in our study, intentional deception."

In one study, the researchers gave 48 full-time MBA students $89 to divide between themselves and another fictional party, who only knew the dollar amount fell somewhere between $5 and $100. There was one pre-condition: the other party had to accept whatever offer was made to them. Using either email or pen-and-paper communications, the MBA students reported the size of the pot — truthful or not — and how much the other party would get.

Lying was rampant in all situations. But students using email lied about the amount of money to be divided more than 92 percent of the time, while less then 64 percent lied when writing by hand.

A second study of 69 full-time MBA students found that the more familiar emailers are with each other, the less deceptive they tend to be. They still lied, however.

The research, presented recently at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, adds to mounting evidence of emailing's pitfalls. Among them: harsher words than we wrote in the old days.

"These findings are consistent with our other work that shows that email communication decreases the amount of trust and cooperation we see in professional group-work, and increases the negativity in performance evaluations, all as opposed to pen-and-paper systems," said co-author Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers University. "People seem to feel more justified in acting in self-serving ways when typing as opposed to writing."

In a telephone interview, during which Kurtzberg promised to tell the truth, she admitted that it's not possible to extrapolate this type of research directly into the real world and say how many people lie or how often. But, she said, "this strongly suggests that it's happening."

Email may not be the worst way to go, however.

A small study in 2004 by Jeff Hancock of Cornell University, involving 30 university students who were asked to keep a communications journal for a week, found that people are more than twice as likely to tell lies in phone conversations as they are in emails. The participants fessed up to the researchers for the sake of the study. They lied in 14 percent of emails, 21 percent of instant messages, 27 percent of face-to-face interactions and 37 percent of phone calls.

Researchers generally believe that lies are related to self-esteem. We want to look good.

But the workplace seems to be a den of dishonesty. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2006 found that people are willing to lie to those they know, and in fact we are "more likely to muddle the truth with our coworkers than with perfect strangers."

"We want to both look good when we are in the company of others (especially people we care about), and we want to protect our self-worth," said the leader of that study, Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta.

Interestingly, fudging the facts is a more serious problem at non-profits, according to David Shulman, author of "From Hire to Liar: The Role of Deception in the Workplace" (ILR Press, 2006). The reason, Shulman figures, is that nonprofits tend to struggle more than for-profit corporations, "which may lead to deception to survive and serve a mission."

Earlier this year, Shulman summarized his findings in an article for the International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law. "Small size, meager resources, and greater discretion for managers may encourage greater deception" in non-profits, he writes. "An exacerbating factor is that nonprofits are moral entrepreneurs, so deceptions can often be morally rationalized."

Robert Roy Britt

Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.