Little Online Lies
Those who post to dating sites fudge the facts strategically.
Catalina Toma knows the ugly truth about online dating: people lie.
But those looking for love via the Internet can take heart. Toma, an assistant professor of communication arts who studies the ways people present themselves online, says daters don’t tell more lies online than they would when meeting someone in a bar — even though technology makes it much easier to stretch the truth.
Online daters lie for the same reason they lie face to face: to give themselves a better shot. But the deceptions people employ in online dating are strategic, because they know they will get caught if they go too far.
“Most people go online because they want to find a relationship partner,” Toma says. “So presenting themselves as three inches taller and looking like Brad Pitt is the kind of lie that will be very easily caught face to face, and that defeats the purpose.”
For Toma, there’s a science to figuring out who is lying, and sometimes it involves a scale and a tape measure. Online daters lie about their height or weight, but not their age. In one study, Toma checked the accuracy of profiles by measuring and weighing daters, and by checking the birth date on their driver’s licenses. Men add about half an inch to their height on average — a practice called “strong rounding up” — while women shave eight and a half pounds off their weight. These fibs, Toma says, are “the kind of stuff that won’t blow you away when you meet the person face to face.”
Toma has also tested the accuracy of photographs that daters post to their online profiles. While most of the daters in her study maintained that their photos were relatively accurate, a panel of independent judges (a group of undergraduate students at Cornell University) rated about one-third of the online profile photos as inaccurate when compared with a snapshot taken in the lab. Women daters were more likely to post older photographs (seventeen months old on average), presenting slightly younger versions of themselves, and to use retouching techniques or hire a professional photographer.
“We’re seeing in online dating the same kind of pressures that people experience face to face about making themselves appear more attractive,” she says. “So I guess the surprising finding is people don’t lie [online] because it’s easy to lie; people lie to satisfy their interpersonal agenda, which is reassuring and nice in a way.”
Toma’s interviews with online daters about the kind of deceptions they find unacceptable revealed that they cut potential matches some slack when it comes to profile accuracy. “People think of the online profile as a ‘promise,’ ” she says. “It’s a promise that you will be a reasonable approximation of your online persona. And if you think about it, it’s truly impossible to capture a three-dimensional human being in the static, two-dimensional profile.”
Online daters are not incredibly harsh judges, because they understand the constraints of the space, having put together their own profiles and potentially pushed the boundaries of the truth themselves, she says. Still, some push the promise concept a bit too far: one study participant admitted to presenting herself online as twenty pounds lighter as a way to motivate herself to lose weight.
Online communication doesn’t allow people to observe nonverbal hints of deception, such as eye contact, fidgeting, and other anxious behaviors. But Toma’s research using linguistic-analysis software identified some specific cues that online daters are lying in their profiles.
“People use fewer first-person pronouns when they’re lying … They don’t say I as many times as when they tell the truth,” Toma says. There is an unconscious need to psychologically distance themselves from the deceptive message, she says, because lying is “something that people normally feel guilty about.”
People who lie in their profiles also use more words such as no, not, and never, and use much simpler language than those telling the truth, revealing the psychological burden of lying. “It’s taking a lot more mental resources to construct a lie and also to maintain the lie,” she says. “First, you have to fabricate something that didn’t actually happen, and then you have to make sure that you don’t contradict yourself, you don’t get yourself entangled in your own deception.”
Online daters also make efforts to compensate for deceptions, so if they lied about their appearance in some way, they may play up career success or social status. And the more online daters reported lying about physical appearance, the fewer eating- or cooking-related words they used in the “about me” part of their profiles.
In the same study, Toma had judges rate how trustworthy online profiles appeared, and found that they perceived very different — and false — cues to whether daters were telling the truth. For example, they gave higher marks to longer profiles that revealed more information, believing they were more honest.
“Human beings are incredibly poor at detecting deception,” she says.
Dating sites now exist for a multitude of ethnicities, interests, and religions. Jewish singles have JDate.com or TheJMom.com (which invites Jewish mothers to find potential mates for their adult children), Ivy League graduates can look for love among their own at RightStuffDating.com, and music lovers can pair up with those whose iPod playlists match their own at tastebuds.fm.
Attitudes about online dating have improved since Toma began studying the subject as a graduate student. “People were really reticent to admitting that they had met on Match.com,” she says. “Now it’s become a very acceptable venue for meeting new people.”
Still, Toma is not speaking from personal experience when she analyzes online dating behavior. “I’ve actually never done online dating myself,” she says. “It’s one of those phenomena where people study what they’re really bad at — in my case, dating.”
Published in the Summer 2011 issue