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9/16/11 - MSU research: 'hirer beware' in online environments

While many Americans believe they, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie, a Mississippi State business researcher is finding that most have no problem fudging facts under the "right circumstances."

In separate studies published in 2008 and later this year, Kent Marett, an assistant professor at the university, and colleagues at other academic institutions involved students in voluntary studies. Their two sets of controlled experiments were designed to gauge deceptive communication.

In the first study completed with colleagues at Florida State and Connecticut State universities, researchers evaluated the ability of interviewers to detect falsehoods in applicants' resume-listed qualifications. While lie detection has been well documented in face-to-face communication, their study targeted computer-mediated communication, including e-mail, instant messaging, chat, and text messaging to judge the effect of these "distancing" technologies on lie detection.

Results from 2008 were published in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communications, a peer-reviewed, quarterly journal devoted to applied research on professional communication. (For more, visit

"Much of today's communication, including job interviews, often takes place in an online setting," Marett noted, adding that students were assigned the role of interviewer or job applicant.

Half of the interviewers were warned job applicants sometimes lie; half weren't. All were asked to determine the accuracy of job applicants' qualifications. Applicants, on the other hand, were instructed to make their resumes "competitive."

The investigation found interviewers who received warnings were more likely to detect deception than those who weren't. Also, the "applicant" pool deftly embellished qualifications to make itself stand out.

In debriefing sessions with the students, researchers used case studies of careers derailed because of false resumes to emphasize the many negative consequences of being deceptive.

"We didn't want students to think this is an effective strategy," the management and information systems faculty member emphasized.

"In an increasingly 'virtual' world, this research has more relevance than ever," Marett observed. "With tight budgets, more companies are doing 'virtual' interviews with applicants they don't meet face to face, and we found deception is more difficult to detect online."

The second study involved collaboration with faculty at Louisiana Tech and Illinois State universities. Soon also to be published in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, this study examined the effect of deception in virtual "teams," such as military organizations might use.

More than 200 students in the second study participated at the three universities during five experimental sessions. The goal here was to test the impact of deception in group decision-making.

"We put together a virtual battleship game and introduced a rogue member whose instructions were to sabotage the game by using deceptive information," Marett said. Because players could earn a small amount of money, there was an incentive to win, he added.

Researchers found that one deceptive player--even if undetected--could have dramatic negative effects on a team's performance. In the battlefield game study, the team with a rogue player missed targets 72 percent of the time, compared to 33 percent in the control group.

Equally important, the study found deception that is detected by a fellow team member also damages credibility and trustworthiness within the team, even if it doesn't impact performance.

"Even if someone raises suspicions, they often get the benefit of the doubt in an online environment," the Florida State University doctoral graduate said.

Conducting what they believe to be the first study in this area, the multi-school research teams agreed that future investigations should delve further into effects of deception and other disruptive influences on virtual team behavior and performance.

"Organizations that use virtual teams must be aware of and prepared to deal with negative behaviors such as deception," Marett concluded.

Maridith Geuder | University Relations

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