A recently published study has shown that people are more likely to lie in an email than they are when using pen and paper. What’s more, it seems most think such behaviour is excusable. These findings were replicated in no fewer than three seperate studies investigating lying online conducted by Charles Naquin and his colleagues from DePaul University in Chicago.

The studies in detail

In the first of three studies, the participants were given a scenario to test the extent to which they would lie. Forty-eight business students were given a fictitious pot of money to be divided between themselves and an unidentified partner.

It was up to the participant to tell their partner how much money was in the pot, and how the money was to be distributed between them. The participant was informed that their partner who would only know that the pot of money was between $5 and $100. They were told to deliver their decision either by email or in a handwritten letter, and were later given a questionnaire to rate their decision. (The actual amount of money in the pot was $89.)

Nearly all the participants (24 out of 26) who delivered their decision by email lied about how much money was in the pot and therefore took more money for themselves (the average pot size was $29.55). However, only around half the participants (14 out of 22) lied when informing their partner by handwritten letter (the average pot size was $34.73). In a follow-up study, the researchers replicated the above findings. Yet again more money was held back by the email users (the average email pot size was $58.18, whereas the average pen and paper pot size was $64.79).

What’s more, the questionnaires in both studies indicate that the participants who told their partner by email felt more justified about their decision to lie. The researchers concluded that we are more likely to lie in an email, and suggested that how we justify our decisions is crucial to understanding why.

Why lie in email?

When we’re faced with making a decision that goes beyond our moral boundaries, we find psychological ways to distance ourselves from the consequences of our actions. We can come up with these excuses so easily that it eventually blurs our moral boundaries, making what we originally thought to be immoral more acceptable. The DePaul studies clearly show that we are more willing to lie by email. So why do we have this perception that a letter is more truthful? What excuses do we come up with to justify our actions?

The researchers suggested three potential reasons why we feel justified lying in emails. Firstly, we regard email as less formal than a letter, often using it to replace a face-to-face conversation or a phone call. Secondly, despite its lack of formality, we consider email to be less personal. It is such a quick method of communication that it is thought to lack the care and attention that goes into a handwritten letter. Finally, the researchers stated that we think of email as being less permanent: it is easier to delete an email than to discard a letter.

When taken together, these justifications make it psychologically easier for us to distance ourselves from the consequences of lying, which in turn also increases the likelihood of doing so.

In the last of the three studies, the researchers attempted to apply this reasoning. In order to do so they used a more realistic scenario. This time 177 managers were divided into groups of three and told they worked for the same company, each representing a different project. Their projects were eligible for extra funding of an unknown amount between $1 million and $50 million.

The participants were asked to hold a 30-minute meeting to discuss why their project should receive the funding. One member of the group was then asked to decide how much money they should each receive from the fund and to inform the other participants by email or in a handwritten letter.

On this occasion, the participant was made aware that the other group members would later find out how much money was available, and how it had been distributed. (The actual fund size was $23 million.) Again the participants were more likely to lie by email, with the fund value reported as less when communicated by email than when written in a letter. (Average reported fund size for email was $18.40 million, whereas pen and paper was $21.24 million). Even though the group member knew that their lies would be revealed, they still took more money for themselves and still felt justified in doing so. (The average amount awarded in email was $10.87m, whereas pen and paper was $9.05m.)

These studies demonstrate that lies are more likely to occur during email exchanges and that people are also more likely to justify their lies when delivered by email.

Implications for businesses

The above studies have highlighted that we are more prone to lying in an email than by letter, so how does this impact you?

Many businesses and organisations now shy away from carrying out paper tasks in favour of the speed and convenience of online applications.

Two well-known examples of online applications that are increasingly replacing pen and paper include applying for jobs and filing taxes online – two processes where honesty is essential. Despite their popularity, when you take into account that people are more prone to lying online, could these processes be at risk from dishonesty?


Perhaps pen and paper should not be completely discounted in favour of email. Meanwhile email users should be careful that they don’t let their moral boundaries become clouded by the justifications email can offer and be more cautious about the emails they receive.

Rob Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis. Emphasis is the UK’s leading organisation dedicated solely to business writing courses.
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