People who seek mates online are notorious for blurring the lines between truth and fantasy. Stories about perfect online dates who bear no resemblance to their online profiles have become fodder for television sitcom plots, late-night punch lines and, unfortunately, crime headlines. Whether these examples reflect the reality of the online dating world or simply the public’s anxieties and fears regarding online matchmaking, the truth remains that online daters can easily get away with lying about themselves for at least as long as it takes to get a foot in the door.
Most people have a hard time telling when people are lying even when they are face to face with them. When the only clue you have is the language a person uses, as in online profiles, it becomes almost impossible for most people to tell when they are being deceived. New research threatens to change all that in the near future, however.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have figured out ways to tell when people are lying just by looking at the words they use and how many of them there are. Catalina Toma and Jeffrey Hancock looked at personal profiles written for online dating sites and compared the information provided with accurate information about the person profiled. The researchers analyzed the language used by would-be daters to see what profiles that contained lies and distortions had in common.
According to the findings reported in the Journal of Communication, it is possible to detect a pattern among the liars. For example, the more untruths a profile contains, the more the writer avoids using the word “I.” According to Toma, this is because liars subconsciously seek to maintain a distance between themselves and the lies they have written.
Liars were also much more likely to use negation. For example, they might state that they are “not in bad shape” rather than saying that they are physically fit or “not shy” instead of saying that they are outgoing. Those who had deceptive profiles were also more apt to use fewer words and tell less about themselves. Toma explains that this is to keep the lies simple so that the liar does not have to remember lots of details.
People who were lying were eager to avoid their lies once they were in place. For example, those who had lied about their vital statistics or who had submitted a doctored, outdated or otherwise deceptive photograph tended to avoid the subject of their appearance in other parts of their profile. They typically focused on achievements in the sections that invited them to tell a potential date about themselves.
Toma and Hancock first compiled the list of clues for spotting deception, then attempted to use them to ferret out those who were lying on their profiles. They were able to correctly identify people who were deceptive 65 percent of the time by looking for the indicators they had previously identified.
Next, volunteers were asked to review the same profiles and try to figure out which ones were being dishonest. Toma compared the success rate of the volunteers to what he would expect from flipping a coin.
Interestingly, eight out of 10 of the profiles studied included at least one falsehood, although many of the lies were small and infrequent. People were most likely to lie about their weight, followed by lies about height and age.
The authors explain that a number of factors make it easier to practice deception in online dating situations. For example, people have time to phrase their responses carefully and double-check their stories before proceeding. They can also choose not to answer. Still, says Toma, the study’s findings are consistent with what scientists know about the way liars conduct themselves in person.
Online dating profiles may be relatively new, but people have been misrepresenting themselves to potential mates for at least the last few thousand years, and there is no reason to think it was not happening long before the first cases were written down. Shakespeare’s heroine Viola did it, and Homer writes that even Zeus, king of the gods, was not above pretending to be something he was not in order to increase his chances with an attractive potential mate.
For now, online daters are on their own when it comes to sniffing out deceptive profiles. The researcher’s findings are too new to have been applied to the development of an online deception detector. However, the day may come when such applications become reality.
“Someday, there may be software to tell you how likely it is that the cute person whose profile you’re looking at is lying to you, or even that someone is being deceptive in an e-mail,” said Toma. “But that may take a while.”