Sexual Wellness Resource Center
For Adults over 50.

Detecting lies in an online dating profiles

Online Dating
By Michael Bates, M.D.

Online dating has become very popular for all age groups, including seniors and men and women over 50. How good are people at deceiving others in online dating sites? And how good are we in detecting other people’s lies in an online dating site? 

As dating site users, we are always concerned about deception. Since online communication is essentially a disembodied experience, we usually wonder how truthful people are in their profiles when the stakes are high, such as in an online dating site. Those of us who navigate and use dating sites, spend a lot of time, resources and energy to find a potential mate. Encountering deception can cause frustration and can undermine our confidence in the process of online dating.

Is there any way to recognize deception before meeting the person face to face? 

Computer Dating ProfileWe tend to think that the lack of physicality in the online environment creates more opportunities to cheat and to deceive others, and that the absence of cues (such as eye gaze, gestures or fidgeting) makes it more difficult to identify liars. 

It seems very easy to lie in a dating profile, because of the type of questions users are asked. First, people are required to provide short, factual answers to a list of questions related to height, age, and profession. Secondly, they face an open-ended question where they must offer a description of themselves (‘‘in my own words’’). Finally, they have to upload some pictures. All these components serve a single purpose, which is to create an attractive and more appealing self-image.

Online daters are able to edit their self-descriptions as long as they need or wish to. They are also allowed to revise and rewrite any previous representation that might not be perceived as flattering or believable enough by the potential audience.

All of these components of the profile make deception a highly strategic activity in the online dating scenario. Misrepresenters are very aware of the potential they have to create an idealized and charming portrait of themselves that can lure someone to them. 

In reality, many people lie in their profiles. Men frequently report taller height; and women, lower weight. Women also tend to post less accurate pictures. According to researchers, these deceptions are intentional, and not the result of some innocent oversight.

The problem, however, is not these “white lies” about height or weight, but a more calculated misrepresentation of the person in his/her profile.

Can we establish if these small lies to the short questions of the profile are somehow related to a more serious deception in the textual portion of the profile (the self-description)?

The answer of Catalina L. Toma and Jeffrey T. Hancock, from the University of Wisonsin-Madison and Cornell University, respectively, to this question is that, in fact, some linguistic traits objectively measured in the profiles can reveal deception.

According to these authors, online daters in their study tended to not mention those topics in which they had previously lied in their short answers. Thus, if online daters had lied about their physical appearance (height and weight), or if they had used non-accurate profile pictures, they avoided resorting to words associated with body size in their self-descriptions (e.g., words related to eating, food, or expressions of quantity, such as “few” or “much”). 

To compensate for specific deceptions, Toma and Hancock discovered that online daters who posted less accurate profile pictures were eager to stress other aspects of themselves that elevated their social status. For instance, they used more words related to job success (such as “work” and “achievement”) than people who did not lie.

Deceitful online daters also used fewer self-references (e.g., ‘‘I,’’ ‘‘me,’’ ‘‘myself’’) and more negative words (e.g., ‘‘no,’’ ‘‘not,’’ ‘‘never’’) in their self-descriptions. Both linguistic strategies were aimed to defuse responsibility about the truth of the statements. Without realizing it, the person was conveying a lack of commitment towards the deceptive statement, as a way of psychologically distancing himself or herself from the reproachable act of deceiving others (e.g., DePaulo et al., 2003; Hancock et al., 2008; Newman et al., 2003).

The second question addressed by Toma and Hancock was whether or not people are capable of accurately detecting online daters’ trustworthiness based only on the information contained in the textual self-description of the online dating profile.

There is strong evidence that people are not good at detecting deception. Actually we are only slightly better than chance on average. The main reasons for this poor performance are the few reliable cues available, the misleading cultural beliefs about deception, and our natural tendency to presume that others are telling the truth (what is called the truth bias).

Toma and Hancock found that people deciding online daters’ trustworthiness generally relied on a different set of specific cues, such as:

(a) Increased sense of inclusiveness of the audience. Self-descriptions containing more first-person plural pronouns (‘‘we’’ and ‘‘ours’’), indicating inclusiveness, and fewer second-person pronouns (“you”) were evaluated as more truthful.

(b) Larger amounts of information (higher number of words). Participants in Toma and Hancock’s study found lengthier self-descriptions as more trustworthy than their shorter, less informative versions. The more details online daters provided in their self-descriptions, the more truthful they were considered. This result is consistent with the natural tendency people have to reduce uncertainty. The more information we can gather from others, the more we tend to like them. We like others better if we can trust them.

(c) Language concreteness and conciseness. Clarity of speech has been found an essential factor in forming impressions of trustworthiness. Toma and Hancock’ participants perceived self-descriptions written concisely and with concrete words more trustworthy than those with a more convoluted writing style. Concrete language, as opposed to abstract language, was considered more reliable, accessible and familiar and, therefore, more truthful.

But are these linguistic cues really correlated with online daters’ trustworthiness?

The majority of these cues were unreliable and useless in accurately evaluating daters’ trustworthiness, with the only exception being the number of words. More deceptive profiles contained shorter self-descriptions. 

Therefore, to be able to detect deception in online profiles, therefore, we should pay more attention to those linguistic mechanisms that, unconsciously, the liar gives in the textual self-description of his/her profile. According to Toma and Hancock’s results, we could look at the following cues: