Most of us are horrible lie detectors in face-to-face interaction, and we're even worse when it comes to knowing if someone is lying online. New research suggests, however, that there are certain linguistic signals we can look for to determine if someone is trying to hoodwink us.

The research focused on online dating, an arena rife with deception from men and women alike. Using personal descriptions written for Internet dating profiles, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cornell University have identified reliable clues as to whether the author was being deceptive.

The researchers compared the actual height, weight and age of 78 online daters to their profile information and photos on four matchmaking websites. A linguistic analysis of the group's written self-descriptions revealed patterns in the liars' writing.

Here are a few examples:

  • The more deceptive a dater's profile, the less likely they were to use the first-person pronoun "I." Liars do this because they want to distance themselves from their deceptive statements.
  • Liars often used negation, a flip of the language that would restate "happy" as "not sad" or "exciting" as "not boring."
  • Liars tended to write shorter self-descriptions in their profiles—a hedge against weaving a more tangled web of deception. The less they write, the fewer untrue things they have to remember and explain later.
  • Daters who had lied about their age, height or weight or had included a photo the researchers found to be inaccurate, were likely to avoid discussing their appearance in their written descriptions, choosing instead to talk about work or life achievements.

Using indicators like those above allowed the researchers to correctly identify liars 65% of the time—a significantly higher percentage than what the typical person is capable of, which according to previous studies is usually well below 50%.

What research like this is leading to are programs that analyze verbiage online in a variety of scenarios to determine who is lying (or, in the case of dating sites, who is lying the most, since about 80% of participants lie to some degree).

By the way, if you're wondering what people lied about the most, it was their weight. No surprise there. According to the study, women tended to misrepresent their weight by an average of 8.5 pounds and men by around 1.5 pounds. Half of the participants also lied about their height, and nearly 20 percent changed their age.

The study was published in the February issue of the Journal of Communication.

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