Online dating has made potential partners much more readily available than ever before -- and yet also, somehow, disposable.
The other day I was sitting on a train with a friend as she flicked through profiles on Bumble, an online dating service in which women have to reach out to men first. I watched her swipe left to reject a professional football team's worth of New York-area hipsters, jocks and nerds. Some were disqualified for being basic-looking bros with too-big arm muscles, and some for trying too hard to be hip, whether emphasizing their DJ gigs or having super hipster photos.
In 2015, Pew found that 15 percent of American adults -- and nearly a third of 18- to 24-year-olds -- had used an online dating site or app. But with a seemingly infinite dating pool, especially in major cities, it can be really hard to figure out who might make a good match, and how to present yourself so as to find one.
To set yourself apart from the herd, you might be tempted to highlight or exaggerate your accomplishments. But paradoxically, new research suggests that is not the way to go.
A recently published study from researchers at the University of Iowa looked at how specific kinds of content in online dating profiles changed people's perceptions of the profile's owner. They found that trying too hard to impress someone was one common downfall.
To perform the experiment, the researchers created four different profiles that differed along two basic dimensions. One of those dimensions was what they call "selective self-presentation," or the degree to which people emphasized the best parts of themselves and minimized the worst. The second dimension they looked at was “warranting” -- basically, backing up any written claims by including some kind of evidence, such as detailed personal information that could be verified online, or links to a third-party professional site that could verify their biography.
The researchers asked a group of 316 nationally representative online daters to review one of the four sample online dating profiles, which had some combination of high or low selective self-presentation and high or low warranting. Then they looked at whether the reviewers saw these people as more or less socially attractive (i.e., whether they wanted to spend time with them) and trustworthy, and whether that influenced their desire to date them.
Selective self-enhancement is very common online. (How often have you detagged unflattering photos on Facebook?) And the reasons people engage in selective self-enhancement when creating their online dating profiles is clear: They want to highlight their best qualities for any potential suitor.
But the study suggests that, when it comes to online dating, this approach may backfire. The researchers found that people with high selective self-presentation were seen as bragging about their looks and their accomplishments -- and were in turn seen as less socially attractive and less trustworthy. And that translated into fewer contacts and fewer dates.
For some of the profiles, giving the kind of concrete information that could be fact-checked helped, but not for all. "Warranting" did not help when people were seen as bragging or trying too hard (i.e. having high selective self-presentation). In these cases, adding in the supporting information made the profile owners seem like the most arrogant of any group.
But the combination of low selective self-presentation and high warranting – i.e., no braggy language, just specific, checkable details, or a link to an outside website that would verify who they were -- was a combination that did work. People appreciated those who seemed humble but also specific, and especially those who had other sources do their bragging for them. These people were thought to be honest but also approachable.
The reason is probably that, at this point, online daters are wary of profiles that promise too much.
Past studies have shown that exaggerating on online dating profiles -- whether lying about your height, weight or some other attribute -- is extremely common. One study termed this practice “profile as promise”: Online daters create a vision of who they could be, rather than who they are. Compared with real life, people who meet online actually display more initial social attraction to each other -- they are more interested in hanging out with each other than people who randomly meet face-to-face -- but they also display far less trust.
In an online dating environment with almost limitless possibilities, it seems like the rare commodity is not someone you're physically or socially attracted to, but someone you can really trust.
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