60-Second Mind

When to Catch a Lie via Text

A recent experiment finds that when people are about to lie via digital text they take longer to construct their words. Christie Nicholson reports

You’re texting with a friend. The back and forth is fast and furious. Until…there’s an awkwardly long pause. You might think, aw, they just got another call, or had to get back to their dinner, whatever. But maybe…they’re about to lie.

At least that was one conclusion from an experiment published in a journal called ACM Transactions on Management Information Systems.

Scientists had 100 participants converse via online text with a specially developed computer program. The computer asked each participant 30 questions. And the participants were instructed to lie in half the responses. The researchers found that the lies took 10 percent longer to write, were shorter and were edited more than the truthful messages. 

How can you tell if someone is heavily editing a text? Newer smartphones let you know when the other person is typing. A lot of starting and stopping could mean the texter is carefully constructing a response that might not hold up in a court of law.

Bottom line: dishonest texts take longer on average to write—but it’s also possible your friend may be making an honest attempt to fix those pesky incorrect auto-corrects.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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