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Why people lie more when they use a laptop than a phone

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While the vast majority of participants fiddled with at least a little, laptop users were much more likely to lie — and much more so. Eighty-two percent of laptop participants cheated, compared to 62% of phone users, claiming the pot was $20 less on average.

While this was hypothetical and no real money was involved, previous inquiry by us and other scholars shows that these scenarios are good at predicting actual behavior.

To see if our finding held up in a more realistic scenario, we devised a negotiation experiment in which two people were told to barter on the purchase price of an imaginary semiconductor factory that one of them owned. We split 222 students into buyers and sellers. Buyers were told confidentially that the market value of the property was estimated at $21 million.

We then asked buyers to tell sellers what they thought the real market value of the property was and to make an initial offer. As in the first experiment, about half of the students used their phones and the others negotiated on laptops.

Again, laptop users were more deceitful. On average, they told salespeople that the fair value was $16.7 million — at more than $4 million — compared to $18.1 million for telephone participants. In both cases, their actual offers were only slightly higher than what they believed to be the market value.

To find out what’s going on, we asked participants in a separate study about their associations with each device and found a consistent pattern. Phones led to associations of friends and family, and laptops led to thoughts of work, success and achievement, which previous research has shown that this can lead to unethical behavior.

Why it matters

People’s use of technology in making decisions can subtly but fundamentally change the way our brains work.

In previous work, we discovered that people lie more often, cooperate less and judge others more negatively when they perform tasks virtually rather than in person, using physical aids such as pens and paper.

While studies like ours can’t perfectly predict how behavior will turn out in real life, these experiments do provide more evidence of the subtle ways technology can change human behavior.

What is not yet known

We do not know whether our findings apply to other tasks and within the context of existing relationships. Even within our experiments, other factors can influence people’s choice to lie, such as different screen sizes or locations.

Our research shows the need to assess how technological tools are used in real-world environments, including the unconscious changes these devices can have for everyday decisions and ethical standards.

Terri R. Kurtzberg is an associate professor of management and global business at Rutgers University-Newark, Charles Naquin is an associate professor of management at DePaul University, and Mason Ameri is an associate professor of professional practice at Rutgers University-Newark.

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