Profiling Online Daters: Short Self-descriptions Are Suspect

Online, less is not more. Minimal self-revelation triggers a fraud alert.

Posted May 29, 2017

Detecting online dating deception involves interpreting language used by posters.  Because lying is done differently in a virtual context, linguistic clues can reveal deceptive self-description. Deceptive posters strategically misrepresent the person behind the persona, and say very little about areas in which they are being dishonest.

Reading beneath the lines: language reveals online dating deception

It is possible to detect deception in online dating profiles if you know what to look for.  In “What Lies Beneath: The Linguistic Traces of Deception in Online Dating Profiles,” researchers Toma and Hancock found deception detectable through strategic self-presentation. [i] They explored, among other things, whether deceptions made in online dating profiles correspond with how daters describe themselves in the free-text portion of the profile. [ii] They found profile deceptions regarding age, height, weight, or photos were related to patterns of word use in the opened-ended profile self-description. [iii]   

Short and sweet does not signal sincere: short profiles are suspect

All online daters attempt to portray themselves in a positive light.  Dishonest posters do it with less words.

Deceptive dating profiles use shorter descriptions of self, in contrast to findings that liars use more words rather than less in conversations.[iv]  The more lies in dating profiles, the fewer self references were used in order to create psychological distance from the deceptions.[v]  Toma and Hancock speculated that perhaps fewer words make it harder to establish contradictions with past deceptions.[vi]

For readers, verbosity is veracity.  People trust posters who write longer self-descriptions, as opposed to those who use fewer words.[vii]  In fact, Toma and Hancock found profile word count to be the only clue that was related to deception.[viii]

Truth by omission: detect deception through topics not discussed

What do online daters lie about? The answer might be found by noticing what they don´t say.  

Online daters employ reticence—the avoidance of terms relative to specific deceptions, such as reported height or an inaccurate photo, which allow them to avoid contradiction or draw attention from the deception.[ix]  Daters balance profile deceptions such as inaccurate photos, emphasizing truthful positive qualities such as accomplishments. [x] 

For example, when posters misrepresented physical appearance, they used fewer eating-related words and quantifiers.[xi]  Given that many people go out to dinner on their first date, why would posters underreporting their weight omit discussion of favorite foods or restaurants?  Because such details could be interpreted as related to body size, and thus related to dishonesty about physical appearance.[xii]  

Regarding online self-description, although the data is only correlational, online daters strategized profile text to draw attention away from their deception and towards other areas.[xiii]  For example, when misrepresenting physical appearance, they used fewer words that could be associated with body size, and more words related to job success.[xiv]

Relationship between dishonesty and emotion

Deceptive dating profiles contain emotional cues reflecting psychological distancing such as negation terms and first-person singular pronouns.[xv]  This indicates that psychological distancing is difficult to control, and thus useful in detecting deception.[xvi]

One surprising finding was that more deceptive profiles contained less negative emotion words, contrary to expectations given that lying produces negative emotions.[xvii] Although more study is needed, the researchers speculated that this finding could be due to the ability to use words strategically in asynchronous media.[xviii]

The caveat in cyberspace communication

There are, of course, scores of honest posters who simply chose not to create a long-winded profile. Some posters are shy, humble, private (at least online), or pressed for time. Certainly everyone should consider extending the benefit of the doubt to someone who, despite brevity, appears to be an excellent match.

In the final analysis, you are unlikely to know the extent of a poster´s deception until you meet him or her in person. Yet considering some of these research-based clues will enable you to be better equipped to make a decision about whether your online interest is someone you want to meet offline in the first place.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD


[i] Catalina L. Toma & Jeffrey T. Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath: The Linguistic Traces of Deception in Online Dating Profiles,” Journal of Communication Vol. 62 (2012): 78-97.

[ii] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 79-80.

[iii] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 94.

[iv] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 92.

[v], ​[vi] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 87.

​[vii], ​[viii] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 91-92.

 [ix], [x] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 93.

[xi], [xii]  Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 86.

[xiii], [xiv] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 87.

[xv], [xvi]  Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 92-93.

[xvii], [xviii] Toma & Hancock, ”What Lies Beneath,” 93.

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