In our version, we told 137 graduate students to imagine they’d share $125 with a fellow student, if their randomly assigned partner agreed to the deal. Half of them used a laptop; the rest participated with their smartphone.
While the vast majority of participants fibbed at least a little, laptop users were much more likely to lie – and by a lot more. Eighty-two percent of laptop participants were deceptive, compared with 62% of phone users, and on average claimed the pot was $20 less.
Although this was hypothetical and didn’t involve real money, previous research 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 real-world scenario, we devised a negotiation experiment in which two people were told to barter over the purchase price of an imaginary semiconductor factory one of them owned. We split 222 students into buyers and sellers. Buyers were confidentially told that the market value of the property was estimated at $21 million.
We then asked buyers to tell sellers what they thought was the fair market value of the property and make an initial offer. Like in the first experiment, about half of the students used their phones and the others negotiated on laptops.
Again, laptop users were more deceptive. On average, they told sellers the fair value was $16.7 million – lowballing it by over $4 million – compared with $18.1 million for phone participants. In both cases, their actual offers were only slightly higher than what they said was the market value.
To find out what’s going on, we asked participants of a separate study about their associations with each device and found a consistent pattern. Phones triggered associations of friends and family, and laptops led to thoughts of work, success and accomplishments – which previous research has shown can trigger unethical behavior.
Why it matters
People’s use of technology in decision-making can subtly yet fundamentally shift the way our brains work.
In past work, we found that people lie more frequently, cooperate less and evaluate others more negatively when they conduct tasks virtually as opposed to in person, with physical tools like pens and paper.
While studies like ours can’t perfectly predict how behavior will play out in real life, these experiments do offer more evidence of the subtle ways technology can alter human behavior.
What still isn’t known
We don’t know whether our findings would hold for other tasks and within the context of existing relationships. Even within our experiments, other factors may be affecting people’s choice to lie, such as different screen sizes or locations.
Our research shows the continued need to assess how technological tools are used in real settings, including the unconscious changes these devices might have on daily decisions and ethical standards.
Terri R. Kurtzberg is associate professor of management and global business at Rutgers University - Newark.
Charles Naquin is associate professor of management at DePaul University.
Mason Ameri is associate professor of professional practice at Rutgers University - Newark.
This piece originally appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia for the public.