Deception in cyberspace

avatarAn interesting article in the September 2007 issue of International Journal of Human-Computer Studies explores various aspects of deception in online chat.

The researchers were particularly interested in the use of avatars (“a virtual representation of oneself that other users can see or interact with in a virtual environment”, p.770) in deception. Are people influenced in their choice of avatar when they have deception in mind? Are people hiding behind avatars are perceived as trustworthy in conversation compared to when they are engaged in text-to-text chat without avatars? Does the use of an avatar as a ‘mask’ help liars reduce anxiety about deceiving?

In the study, student participants were randomly assigned to truth telling or lying conditions and some were allowed to choose avatars. They then conducted conversations with each other in text-only or avatar-supported chat rooms.

The researchers found that participants who had been assigned to the ‘deception’ condition were more likely than truth-tellers to choose avatars that looked different from themselves. The authors suggest that “by selecting an avatar that is different from oneself (i.e., ‘putting on a mask’), the deceiver may perceive a greater distance from their conversation partner and a reduced likelihood that the deception can be detected” (p.778).

Supportive of this, the researchers found that in text-to-text chat, deceivers had higher (self-reported) anxiety levels than truth-tellers, but the same effect was not found in the avatar-supported chat. This suggests that hiding one’s identity behind an avatar ‘mask’ may help relieve any anxiety about deceiving your communication partner.

But there was no difference in ratings of trustworthiness of conversation partner, regardless of the use of avatars or whether the partner was in fact a deceiver. In other words, these participants were not able to pick up cues to deception in either conversation environment. Using an avatar may make the deceiver feel better but doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be perceived as any more – or indeed less – trustworthy than someone who is genuinely telling the truth.

More on the Deception Blog about deception in online communication here, and some links to other scholarly work on ‘techno-treachery’ here .


Photo credit: gexplorer, Creative Commons License

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