Thursday, May 6, 2021
Kathleen DeLaney Thomas (North Carolina; Google Scholar), Your Tax Software Doesn't Know You're Lying (JOTWELL) (reviewing Ethan LaMothe (Central Florida; Google Scholar) & Donna Bobek (South Carolina; Google Scholar), Are Individuals More Willing to Lie to a Computer or a Human? Evidence from a Tax Compliance Setting, 167 J. Bus. Ethics 157 (2020)):
Imagine your accountant asks you if you earned any income that wasn’t reported on a 1099 or W-2 this year, and you know that you have an extra $5000 of such income. Do you tell her? Probably. For starters, you might be worried that she is going to be suspicious if you lie to her. Something in your voice might give it away, or perhaps your income this year is lower than last year and she wants to know why. Further, you might have developed a rapport with your accountant, and lying to her might cause psychological discomfort.
Now imagine that you are debating whether to report the same income without an accountant’s help, using tax return preparation software. The software isn’t suspicious of your omission and doesn’t harbor any ill feelings about whether you are telling it the truth. In that case, you might be more likely to lie and not report the income. A fascinating new study by Ethan LaMothe and Donna Bobek confirms this intuition. In a survey of 211 participants, LaMothe and Bobek find that individuals may be more willing to lie to tax preparation software than they are to a human tax return preparer. ...
This article should be of great interest to tax compliance scholars and those interested in the impact of technology on the tax system. As LaMothe and Bobek note, policymakers “should consider the tradeoffs inherent to tax software usage and perhaps view preparation method as a relevant risk factor when developing enforcement strategies.” The study also has interesting implications for tax software design. While it may be impossible to replicate true human interaction, software designers could consider ways to compensate. For example, the author’s findings arguably support proposals to make ethics more salient when individuals use tax software (such as those found here, here, and here). While automated tax preparation has tremendous efficiency advantages, the potential compliance costs of using tax software should not be overlooked.