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Think you’re being lied to? It’s time to evaluate those text messages

People who lie via instant messaging take longer to respond with shorter-than-usual replies, according to a new study that found liars also make more edits as they type – mostly deletions and backspacing.

The distanced nature of most digital conversations, whether texting or chatting on social media, may encourage deception, the researchers suggest.

"It feels a little bit more removed, a little bit easier to do that," said Tom Meservy, study co-author and a professor of information systems at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

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The researchers created a customized "chatbot" that asked 108 students from two large U.S. universities 30 questions each. These were designed to reflect six styles of deception including "fiction," "masks" and "playing," and ranged from, "Describe in detail how you spent your last vacation," to "What do you think should be done about global warming?"

The students were told to lie in half of their responses. They were told only as the questions rolled out, mimicking "spontaneous deception" or lying on the spot, the way we fib in most of our face-to-face interactions and tech-mediated conversations.

The researchers examined not only the replies but also the typing behaviour: "It's not just what you say, it's how you say it," Meservy said.

While lying in person generally has people sputtering more information than they should, liars often trimmed their verbiage when sending messages: Dishonest responses were composed of fewer words than truthful ones. The researchers also found messages replete with lies were crafted more carefully than honest ones, and took 10 per cent longer to write. "There's cognitive effort in crafting this lie," Meservy said.

A 2012 study out of Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who fudged their online dating profiles avoided the pronoun "I" to distance themselves from their lies. They also wrote shorter bios – the less written, the fewer lies to keep track of. (A ruse told online means there's an electronic trail.)

Still, texting and instant messages can be more efficient than calling, and little white lies can be more efficient at times than the truth. "Computer-mediated chat is a very fertile ground for deception," the study notes. Researchers have found that people can accurately detect lies only 54 per cent of the time, a skill that deteriorates when there's no facial expression or voice to scrutinize.

With the current study, "We are identifying signs given off by individuals that aren't easily tracked by humans," Meservy said. He sees implications from the research for airport security, border crossings and online applications for jobs, visas and social assistance, but not so much for cheating spouses: "We're not out to ruin relationships." The study, he says, is about raising red flags, not a "blanket determination of truth versus deceit."

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Meservy stresses that there is no single cue to deception, nor should anyone presume that a longer waiting time for a text means the texter is duplicitous: They're probably just multitasking. "That's the state of our world."

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