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Management Jeff Hancock: ‘Deception has value, there’s no question, but when used to harm, that’s a problem’

Professor Jeff Hancock, founding director of Stanford University's Social Media Lab.

Dario Ayala/Globe and Mail

Jeff Hancock, 45, is the founding director of Stanford University’s Social Media Lab, conducting research and advising organizations on how technology affects deception and trust. His Tedx talk, The Future of Lying, has generated nearly 1.28-million views.

I’m proud – and like sharing – that I’m a first-generation college student. My parents have been amazing – very supportive of my work; I can’t ever say that enough. I was born in Kamloops, B.C.; our family moved north to Fort St. John for 10 years. That was awesome, you could walk or ride your bike a few blocks and you’re in the wilderness.

I started taking business and a girlfriend said, “Do something you can only do at university.” That was good advice. I ended up falling in love with psychology, doing my undergrad at the University of Victoria.

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My best friend and I were student customs officers [now Canada Border Services Agency], the summers of 1995 and 1996 in B.C. We were excited to get trained – a psychologist’s dream come true. It was fascinating, we loved it, shocked we only received an hour or so [training] about lying and deception. “There’s no set of cues to always tell if somebody’s lying?” We offered to write a manual. We came back to that in our PhDs – “Why don’t we know how deception works?” A job that might not seem important at the time, later you realize it was pivotal.

I met my wife and we headed to Halifax. I did a combined psychology Masters and PhD at Dalhousie [University]. She printed out a job ad – back when you printed things. I said, “Cornell’s a whole other level!” I had an offer at a top [Canadian university’s] psychology department and Cornell’s [in communications]; Geri Gay there plucked me from the wilderness. It was difficult leaving not only my country, but discipline. It was absolutely the right decision.

Stanford recruited me in 2015, the second-most-difficult decision I’ve made because I loved Cornell. Stanford’s exciting, Silicon Valley super important for our era; like Florence in the Renaissance. Since my TED talk [2012] I’ve taught a class on how technology affects truth and trust.

I go on sabbatical a year – and everything’s changed. With the 2016 election and stance [President Donald] Trump takes toward truthfulness, deception has become a salient topic. For his base he comes across as authentic because he doesn’t talk like an elite or politician. It seems paradoxical but makes sense, this faux authenticity. It allows people to trust him though they know he’s lying. That’s very worrisome.

Some companies do the same thing. One of the most important things to address is more sensitivity to trust violations. It’s why meme culture and humour in social media is so strong, so powerful, because you can say so much more with a clever piece of irony.

There’ll be changes in how companies develop more robust trust with consumers, establishing identity so people know who they’re talking to. In hiring, there’s so much more information about individuals. You can look at what they’ve said and done on the internet – not the only source – but it’s difficult to fake what you’ve done or said in the past. People will lie less because there’s more records – that’s good.

Deception has value, there’s no question, but when used to harm, that’s a problem. When theories of how technology and deception work come together, it leads to weird beliefs, which we’ve now seen. When companies don’t understand people’s simplified, often misguided, folk theories the consequences can be disastrous. It doesn’t mean dumb or stupid.

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When my daughter asks how gravity works, I don’t know how gravitational constants are derived. Folk theory means it’s good enough for our purposes, intuitive and non-scientific. Most of the time it works well because it’s typical, the truth or small relatively inconsequential lies. It’s problematic when faced with a psychopath or somebody trying to manipulate you.

The truth bias is replicated in every deception study; we default to believe other people tell the truth. More information leads to shortcuts in terms of trust; I trust professional journalistic practices but should I trust information from a source I’ve never heard of?

Hockey’s a great part of my week. I’m [a goalie] in the San Jose Adult League, now on the Jets. My save percentage is .922. I like to think deception work helps with breakaways.

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