The Truth about Online Dating Liars

Research reveals that in the world of online datng, truth is relative. But we bet Bucky wouldn't need to stretch the truth; his profile is already impressive enough.

It’s estimated that a quarter to a third of recent U.S. marriages are the result of relationships that began online. Yet despite how common it’s become to meet a partner through a profile, many remain deeply suspicious of online personas, especially anytime “troll” or “catfish” stories go viral.

But this perception of widespread deception may not match the reality of online dating, says Catalina Toma, a UW assistant professor of communications science who specializes in online self-presentation.

Toma studies how communication technologies such as online dating and social networking sites affect the ability of people to relate to and understand one another. As part of her current work in the Department of Communication Arts — part of the College of Letters & Science — she’s examining how technology affects self-esteem, but a major area of her research has focused on deception in online dating profiles.

Toma is among dozens of UW faculty members who are showcasing this kind of insight and inquiry across the country this spring as they visit Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) chapters at events marking Founders’ Day. It’s a celebration of the anniversary of the first day of University of Wisconsin classes on February 5, 1849 — and of the UW’s tradition of academic excellence past, present and future.

Rounding Off a Few Edges

For her graduate work at Cornell University, Toma and her colleagues recruited heterosexual New York City residents who were using online dating sites that required a monthly fee, such as match.com and americansingles.com. Toma’s team asked the participants to rate the accuracy of their own dating profiles, and then the researchers took their own measurements and looked at driver’s licenses to compare the participants’ profile data with the truth.

The general pattern was that 80 percent of people lied about one of at least three elements that researchers could objectively measure: age, height and weight. However, though the frequency of lying was high, the actual magnitude of those lies was fairly small.

In general, people tended to lie in ways that were based on their perceptions of what potential partners would find attractive. For example, women on average subtracted around eight pounds from their weight. Men were honest about their weight but “strongly rounded up” their height. For example, a man who measured a little over 5’10” was more likely to list his height as 5’11”.

Additionally, women were more likely than men to use profile photos that they thought were more physically flattering. Women also posted photos that presented themselves as younger than their actual age; on average, women used profile photos that were about a year and three months out of date. In contrast, men posted photos that were around six months old.

Deception doesn’t lead to dinner

Though study participants fudged certain physical characteristics, they rarely lied about significant aspects of themselves. For example, only 15 to 20 percent of people lied about their age, and the vast majority were honest about their relationship status or whether they had children — elements of their lives that would be difficult to hide from partners for very long.

“We’re seeing that online daters are very strategic,” Toma says. “They don’t lie a great deal because they don’t want to alienate potential partners. Nobody wants to be with a liar.”

Though preferences vary widely, many online daters prefer to meet potential partners in person relatively quickly after establishing a basic level of compatibility through email or phone contacts.

“It’s a new environment, but the same human motivations and tendencies manifest themselves as they do in other contexts,” Toma says. “The way we, as two unique individuals, communicate with one another is impossible to capture in a profile. Daters want to gauge that chemistry.”

A looming face-to-face meeting isn’t the only disincentive against lying online. Toma says there are several inherent aspects of technology that discourage deception. For example, essentially all online exchanges are now recorded in some form, and it’s easier than ever before to vet people via their social media networks.

“As we’re moving toward the future, my prediction is we’ll live in a world that makes it harder and harder to lie,” Toma says.