Small lies about height or weight are frequently on online dating site profiles

By Ellen McCarthy
Sunday, December 20, 2009

When he wrote that he was 6 feet tall, what he really meant was 5-foot-10 -- give or take an inch. She said she weighed 125 pounds, and she probably did, but that was back in high school. And of course, that "sales executive" turned out to be a telemarketer.

It won't surprise anyone who's tried online dating to learn that eight out of 10 people lie somewhere in their profiles, according to a series of studies funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

And it didn't surprise Jeffrey T. Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell University who conducted the research over the last few years and explained the findings in a NSF webcast earlier this month. Fabrications "have been driving human behavior for millennia," Hancock says in a phone interview. "It's new bottles, in a way, but very old wine."

Members of online dating sites routinely point to potential for deception as the biggest drawback of such services. When they're not able to read nonverbal cues, Hancock says, "people automatically think other people are lying." (In fact, he adds, multiple studies have shown that the telephone is the richest medium for fibs: "Oh, yes, I'm on my way," you say, having not yet left the house.)

To find out how much lying goes on in the cyber-dating world, Hancock and his colleague, Catalina Toma, recruited hundreds of active online daters in New York City, downloaded their existing profiles and compared those with verifiable data they'd gathered on the participants by measuring heights and weights, looking up age and income records.

The researchers found that while lies were widespread, they were generally very small -- fudging height by an inch or two, subtracting 10 pounds from the scale. Whopping deceptions about things like marital status were rare.

But, Hancock says, "when it came to gender, it was almost depressing. It's exactly the sort of things you'd predict from evolutionary psychology. Men tend to be interested in bodies and that's what women lied about, and women tend to be interested in status indicators and for much of evolution, height was a good status indicator -- and sure enough men lied in exactly that way."

Hancock also had participants rate the accuracy of different parts of their own profiles and found that most knew exactly where they were playing fast and loose with the facts. But he doesn't view such falsities as malicious -- in fact, he says, he's "not entirely sure that eliminating all deception is necessarily a good thing."

"Some people call lying a social lubricant," Hancock explains. "Let's say you're short and a lot of women ignore you. You fudge a little on that and when you actually meet the person, you hope you're interesting enough that they'll overlook it."

In another study, Hancock and his colleagues compared online dating profile pictures with snapshots taken in their labs to see how truthfully daters presented themselves visually. On average, women used photos that were 17 months old (read: when they were 17 months younger), while the typical man posted images that were seven months old. Hancock also found that women were more likely to use professional photos that often had some gauzy "dressing up."

In a third study, they analyzed the text of dating profiles for patterns among those who lied most frequently. As happens in verbal communication, habitual liars used the words "I" and "me" less often than usual, subconsciously distancing themselves from the fabrication.

Hancock thinks that as online dating sites are woven into social networks -- where people are linked to a web of real references -- instances of exaggeration will decrease. But even then, he says, people are still likely to present a version of their best self, even if that's not quite who they are today. (They haven't actually quit smoking, say, or lost that last five pounds, but it's definitely going to happen.)

"We have to say who we are on this static, thin slice of information," he says. "But we're dynamic, evolving beings."

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