Can you spot the lies in an online profile?

June 16, 2011

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One of the biggest fears listed in using online dating is deception by potential mates. Creating an online profile is tricky since everyone wants to create a good impression, and yet complete honesty might turn some away. The more that one wants to appear likable or smart can dramatically increase the probability that someone will lie. Lying in the beginning takes some skill, since people are usually looking out for clues on whether a potential partner has the goods for a relationship. But shouldn’t the prospect of meeting up in person keep people from lying in their profiles?

Why are daters lying online?

One of the most frequently used strategies in a mate search is to make oneself appear more attractive or smarter than potential competitors (Buss, 1988). And online dating ramps up the competition factor while decreases some of the deterrents to lying.

Here are three major ways researchers state online dating can instigate lying:

1. Online daters can plan and revise their profiles, including in more false elements much more subtly than in person. Spell or grammar check, anyone?

2. Online daters don’t have to worry about all those pesky nonverbal cues- like body language, dress, being “on” or “having game,” or being clever
at the exact right time. No one sees you updating your profile in your pajamas.

3. Online daters can slow down and present the absolute best and most flattering profiles/photos at their leisure, instead of having to juggle all the
nuances of face to face communication (what was her name? Where did he say he worked again?).

What are people lying about?

The usual: height, weight, and to a lesser degree, age. And nearly everyone is guilty. In fact, a recent study which compared online profiles to their live counterparts, 80% of those sampled were lying in at least one of those characteristics! Men were typically overstating their height, and women were understating their weight. The lies were usually small- only within 2% of actual height, and 5% of actual weight. Meaning, it would be hard to detect these lies in person. However, the further someone was from the average (either extreme height or weight), the bigger the lie was in an online profile.

Interestingly, men reported that they are more tolerant of lies from others in online profiles- but only in the areas that they have been found to lie about anyway. Women are less tolerant overall of a potential partner’s lying- even on those things that women typically lie about in their own profiles. For instance, in a previous blog we mentioned that women were more likely to post less accurate (and more favorable) photos of themselves online. However, male judges rated female photos more harshly, potentially signaling a need to present the best photo and not just the most accurate one.

While online profiles were routinely found to have these lies it didn’t mean that the entire profile was false (those are for scammers, and not included in this blog). For instance, daters didn’t lie more in other areas of their profile if they were less attractive (i.e., their photos were less accurate, not their entire profile), or if they had casual relationship goals. Most people were aware that the ultimate goal was to meet someone off-line. It just means that the lies told online would be hard to detect in person.

Further Reading:
Buss, D.M. (1988). The evolution of human intrasexual competition: Tactics of mate attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (4), 616-28 PMID: 3367282

Toma, C.L., Hancock, J.T (2010). Looks and lies: The Role of Physical Attractiveness in online dating self-presentation and deception. Communication Research, 37(3), 335-351 DOI: 10.1177/0093650209356437

Toma, C., Hancock, J.T., and Ellison, N.B. (2008). Separating fact from fiction: An examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (34) 1023-1036. PMID: 18593866

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