Clues About Lying – in The Words Themselves

Jeff Hancock at Cornell This is Cornell University professor Jeff Hancock in 2006.  Prof. Hancock has studied online behavior; in particular – the tendency to lie on social networking sites, online dating sites, and, I think, the tendency to lie a little less on online peer-network sites such as LinkedIn, where one’s peers, coworkers and business associates will quickly determine if someone is exaggerating or misrepresenting work experience.

In a 2008 NPR interview, Prof. Hancock discussed some research-identified clues to online deception.  Some of the research was sponsored via a $680,000 National Science Foundation grant for research in the social sciences.  Unlike some research projects, in which the results may be of mysterious, or arcane benefit, it sounds like the research of Dr. Hancock and his students may illuminate important aspects of human, social behavior.

In terms of identifying online lies, Dr. Hancock said things about language that I found fascinating, and which immediately rang true to me.  First, he said, one language construction that statistically correlates to lies written on the internet, is, as he described it, “dropping the first person”.  Or from a grammarian’s perspective, the liar, in typing the lie, literally leaves out “who” did whatever the action is.

In other words:

TRUTH:   We (or I) flew into town last night.

LIE:  Got into town last night.

Dr. Hancock also mentioned online ruses in recent years that involved professionals seeming to be amateurs, from political campaign videos (probably “Obama Girl” and “Hillary Girl” – I know they were performers trying to get attention) to “lonelygirl15” on YouTube, who was an actress.  So is “Crazy German Kid” and who knows how many others.

Dr. Hancock also commented that people may not be aware that they are being told a lie online, but that the way they compose their written responses to lies does indicate there is some difference in the effect of the liar’s words.  People tend to write longer responses to dishonest statements or assertions.  Even if they do not consciously recognize that “it’s a lie,” subconsciously, the difference in syntax in response seems to show that there’s something being triggered, somewhere.

It’s all really cool stuff. Prof. Hancock has been working in automated linguistic analysis for a few years now.  As a writer, I became aware of my language a long time ago.  In what lies the “honesty” of any fictional work?  It can only be in the words.  I think most writers have a sense of when the work is going well, and we are being “true” to the story.  I am fairly certain that some of these patterns would show up in any mathematical analysis.  So, in answer to the question, if “good” writing is that which is “true” to the story and characters, and “bad” writing is that which goes through the motions (i.e. – sort of writing lazily or hastily around a story, not directly to it), someday there might very well be an objective analysis of this.  I believe that people do not want to read the most ENTIRELY uncompromisingly “true” fiction – just as Dr. Hancock mentioned in his radio interview, that he didn’t believe that he’d lied YET that day.  Of course we all tell little white lies, and there are social lies that are very important.

But as to plain, dishonest liars?  No, that is not the most essential thing in our world.  And yes, I think we move ever closer to determining when these behaviors go over the top, and something (ostracism) should be done about it.  Looks like there are more new studies and researchers as well.

Also, many of my stories are now appearing at Anthology Builder – I hope some will want to add them to a custom-made short fiction anthology – “Just for You!”

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Clues About Lying – in The Words Themselves — 3 Comments

  1. Maybe I’m truthiness challenged, but I don’t see the falsehood in subbing the simpler, less specific “Got into town last night” for “Flew into town last nigh.”

    Is it lying to not specify the mode of transportation? Seems like picking at nits when there are some really BIG whoppers out there.

    In the sentence “Got into town last night” the actor is assumed to be the speaker. So unless there’s some deception about WHO got into town or how they got there…

    I’m stumped.

  2. Maya,

    The difference isn’t between “Flew into town last night” and “Got into town last night” — both of those would fall into the “Probably Lies” category. It’s those versus “I flew into town last night” or “I got into town last night,” which indicate a higher level of truthfulness. Apparently, the research indicates that if you drop the pronoun, you’re more likely to be lying.

  3. Hi Maya – sorry – just saw this. It’s not sending me comments, etc.

    It’s dropping the pronoun – “Flew into town” and “Got into town” are the same, and what Master Ki-Aaron says is true. Those who go to the extent of saying “I” are generally truthful, while those who are lying drop the pronoun – i.e. they leave out the subject.

    I really do know two people whom I know for sure are egregious liars who use this exact sentence construction.

    For example – Mr. Computer trouble.

    – “Computer blew up again . . .”
    – “Hard drive went on fritz again . . .”

    When you see that once, no problem. Ten times? Time to question and ask to see the repair bill.