New iPhone Study Proposes Texting Increases Truthfulness
May 18, 2012

Does Texting Increase Truthfulness?

According to a new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, texting is a good way to attain honest answers to delicate questions.

The study was conducted by Fred Conrad, a cognitive psychologist and the Director of the Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), and Michael Schober, a professor of psychology and dean of the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research. The research team comprised of psycholinguists, psychologists, survey methodologists, and computer scientists from both universities. AT&T researchers collaborated with the team, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The research team enlisted roughly six hundred iPhone users from Amazon's Mechanical Turk, Craigslist, and from Google Ads, offering the participants incentives from the iTunes Store. Their objective was to understand whether responses to one question varied due to different factors. These factors included whether the questions were asked using a text message or by voice, whether a computer or human directed the questions, and how an environment might affect the responses.

The study was inspired by fluctuations in the survey industry and communication patterns, according to Schober and Conrad. Approximately one in five U.S. households only use a cellphone and do not own a landline phone. Typically, these types of households are not surveyed, although they differ in vital ways from households that use only landline phones. Texting is now the most popular form of communication among groups of teenagers to groups of people in their 20s within the United States. In many Asian and European populations, however, texting is prevalent amongst all age groups.

"We're in the early stages of analyzing our findings," Schober said. "But so far it seems that texting may reduce some respondents' tendency to shade the truth or to present themselves in the best possible light in an interview — even when they know it's a human interviewer they are communicating with via text. What we cannot yet be sure of is who is most likely to be disclosive in text. Is it different for frequent texters, or generational, for example?"

When responding to a text, researchers discovered that participants were less inclined to practice “satisficing”. This term is used by the surveyors to describe the process of giving satisfactory replies, and can be compared to rounding to the number ten in mathematical answers. "We believe people give more precise answers via texting because there's just not the time pressure in a largely asynchronous mode like text that there is in phone interviews," Conrad stated. "As a result, respondents are able to take longer to arrive at more accurate answers."

Conrad and Schober also discovered that even when in busy or hectic environments, people are more likely to respond to texts honestly and thoughtfully. "This is the case even though people are more likely to be multitasking — shopping or walking, for example — when they're answering questions by text than when they're being interviewed by voice."

Some of the questions proposed in the study include: During the past 30 days, on how many days did you have 5 or more drinks on the same occasion? In a typical week, about how often do you exercise? Other questions asked, where respondents delivered answers that were more precise in text messages, include: How many songs do you currently have on your iPhone? During the last month, how many movies did you watch in any medium?

Fred Conrad stated, "The preliminary results of our study suggest that people are more likely to disclose sensitive information via text messages than in voice interviews.” He also stated, "This is sort of surprising since many people thought that texting would decrease the likelihood of disclosing sensitive information because it creates a persistent, visual record of questions and answers that others might see on your phone and in the cloud."