Phone Versus Online Honesty

Monday, June 2, 2014 - 5:41am
Photo by Mack Reed

Phone Versus Online Honesty

“What fresh hell is this?” was poet Dorothy Parker’s question when her phone or doorbell rang. Opinion-surveyors and telephone-pollsters may often be greeted by Parkeresque answerers, but data now suggests that many of the called choose to be nice to the phoners and to themselves.

To the point of our “public religion” business, Religion News Service (RNS) headlines Cathy Lynn Grossman’s online report with this summary: “Poll: Americans Stretch the Truth on Attending Church.” In her report, Ms. Grossman quips: “You skipped church. And then nearly one in seven of you fibbed about attending.”

The source of data about this sort of “fibbing” is a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which recently presented its findings at the national meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. PRRI’s survey was, to quote Ms. Grossman, “designed to measure the ‘social desirability bias in self-reported religious behavior.’ The survey finds that many Christians — and unbelievers, too — will exaggerate about attending worship in live phone interviews. However, when asked in an anonymous online questionnaire, people will answer more realistically.”

When polled by phone, 36 percent report attending services weekly or more, while 30 percent say they never go. When polled online, far smaller percentages say they attended at least weekly and far more respondents said they seldom or never go.

Robert Jones, CEO of the Institute, says that people who don’t attend worship — but say they did — may not mean to lie. “There’s an aspirational quality here. People see themselves as the kind of person who would go.” So, “remove the social pressure of speaking on the phone, and people will feel less pressure to conform.”

The findings and the comments, including some by Dr. Jones, who knows so much about this, do point to certain anomalies and possible contradictions. Thus “white mainline Protestants” first, and Catholics second, “lie” most. “Lie” is the term that loathers of such Protestants and Catholics use to speak of reported exaggerations.

Many factors have to enter into analyses. Aren’t white mainline Protestants, for example, usually seen as caring least about being typed as pious church-goers? If so, and if they are at best apathetic or, in other terms, critical of religious worship, why do they feel social pressure when talking to a nameless, faceless, featureless phone interviewer? And why does on-line transmission remove social pressure?

Among the many who show disdain for “organized religion,” “the institutional church,” and the practice of piety, why, when the phone rings and they answer, do they turn nicely dishonest?

Bloggers busied themselves with online, not phoned, bluster. This kind of topic brings out the self-identified “atheists” who leaped on the suggestion that religious practitioners lied or, in the critics’ terms, simply were “liars?”

More staid and serious commentators on the much-much commented-upon survey and report raise significant issues. The PRRI and the RNS people are experienced and sophisticated, and express caution about over-interpreting findings of their surveys. They consider who in the population does not get represented in the samples of the surveyed — for example, those who never answer the phone in their effort to avoid fresh hells. The experts also take into consideration the difference between land-line phoners and cell-phone users.

Still, the new findings confirm what pollsters have known and the public surmises: there are and for a half-century have been fewer people in the pews than observers noticed or congregants claimed.


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Martin E. Marty

is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the Divinity School at The University of Chicago. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

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I'm curious about why the author of this piece put both "self-described" and scare quotes around the word "atheist"? There are also scare quotes around one instance of "white mainline Protestants" but not any others, and no scare quotes at all around "Catholics", even when referring to those Catholics who don't attend services as often as they claim. I'm willing to bet that the atheists in question are more sincere and honest about their beliefs and practices than the white mainline Protestants and the Catholics referred to in the article.

In my senior year in seminary, one of our projects was an analysis of attendance statistics of local churches in our home conference (which turned out to be a fairly substantial portion of the conferences of the United Methodist Church with a smattering of similar sized bodies of the United Church of Christ, the ELCA, PCUSA, and even a couple of American Baptist conferences). We were to compare that data with the reported attendance data in polls and, if at all possible, to arrange for independent observation of a statistically significant number of congregations by independent observers. Ever since the results of that project came in, I've known that far fewer people attend worship regularly than say that they do or than most congregations will say do so.

I promised myself that I would resist the temptation to pad numbers just to look good; my predecessor in my current charge padded the numbers to the point that it's what some people remember even though others have tried to counter that memory with pictures and notes and even actual documentation, to little avail. Just as people want to make themselves look good, they want their churches to look good, so it behooves them to inflate numbers (until they have to pay for those numbers, of course).