Can You Really Trust the People You Meet Online?
Some may actually be more honest online than off.
Posted Jul 23, 2014
Online communication has become an integral part of most of our lives, and yet many people continue to view those they meet on the Internet with suspicion. They imagine that online forums are filled with sexual predators and people using false identities. This perception is fueled by sensationalistic cases like the Craigslist Killer and the false identities created by subjects on MTV’s Catfish.
Assessing the relative honesty of online vs. offline communication is complicated. Online interactions vary in terms of two major questions: (1) What venues are we using to communicate, and, (2) What are we lying about?
When we might be especially honest
Surprisingly, people can sometimes be more authentic online than offline in the way they express their personality. In an earlier post, I discussed how people involved in online relationships can develop intense bonds due to the unique ability for the anonymity and control provided by online interactions to enable expression of the “true self”: traits that a person possesses, but does not normally feel comfortable expressing to others. Research has shown that when we chat online, even briefly, these normally hidden traits become more cognitively accessible to us and we actually do succeed in expressing them to others (Bargh et al., 2002).
When I have my own undergraduate students read about the “true self” research, many are shocked by the results, having believed that the Internet was rife with dishonesty. The idea that people could be, in some ways, more genuine online than off strikes them as counterintuitive. But the research suggests that when you’re chatting with someone online—in a Facebook private message or via the instant messaging function on a dating website—you and the other person may actually be especially authentic in how you present your personality.
How much do we lie and how severe are the lies?
In general, people are likely to be pretty honest online; most online deception does not involve the creation of false identities. It’s certainly true that it can be easier to lie online than offline, particularly about your physical appearance or job. So the lies we tell online have the potential to be far more all-encompassing than anything we could get away with in person. Despite that, most online lies, like most offline lies, are subtle, representing people’s attempts to portray themselves in the best possible light, with slight exaggerations (Zimbler & Feldman, 2011).
In one study asking undergraduates to communicate with a stranger in a lab for 15 minutes, it was found that the students were more likely to misrepresent themselves online than face-to-face (Zimbler & Feldman, 2011). But these researchers defined misrepresentation quite broadly, where subjects reviewing transcripts of their conversations were encouraged to label their statements as false if the statements could be perceived as inaccurate or if the subjects weren’t sure if they were accurate. By this definition, even the expression of hidden “true self” traits could qualify as lies. In addition, the average subject only lied about once per interaction, even with this loose definition of lying. In another study examining interactions with offline friends and acquaintances, it was found that people lied less online than face-to-face, perhaps due to the fact that their online comments would be recorded, or that they were less concerned about others’ reactions to potentially negative or insulting comments (Hancock et al., 2004).
What about online dating?
Of all online contexts, dating appears the most prone to dishonesty. In general, no matter the setting, people are more likely to lie when looking for a date than in other social situations (Rowatt et al., 1999).
However, research suggests that while slight misrepresentations on online dating sites are quite common, major lies are actually rare. Online daters realize that while, on the one hand, they want to make the best possible impression in their profile, on the other hand, if they do want to pursue an offline relationship, they can’t begin it with outright falsehoods that will quickly be revealed for what they are (Toma et al., 2008). One survey of over 5,000 users of online dating sites asked them to rate, on a 10-point scale, how likely they were to misrepresent themselves in areas such as appearance and job information (Hall et al., 2010). The average rating on these items was about 2, indicating a relatively low level of deception overall.
So what are online daters lying about? They're especially likely to be dishonest in how they describe their physical appearance. A survey of 84 online daters found that almost 60 percent misrepresented their weight and 48 percent their height, often using photos that helped obscure the truth (Toma et al., 2008). It is also somewhat common for online daters to stretch the truth about their age, with about 19 percent lying about it (Toma et al., 2008). Online daters tend to be most honest about their relationship history, religious and political beliefs, education—and hair and eye color (Toma et al., 2008).
What about social media?
Social networking sites like Facebook also provide a major source of online interactions with others. How authentic are we in these profiles? Back and colleagues (2010) compared people’s real personalities with the personas they projected online, asking subjects to rate both their own personality and their "ideal" personality. Their offline close friends also rated their personality. These ratings were then compared to personality ratings made by strangers who only viewed the subjects' Facebook pages. Strangers’ perceptions, based on the Facebook pages, showed a greater correspondence with the actual than ideal personality ratings, suggesting that Facebook profiles reflect actual and not idealized selves. While the presentation of one’s personality on Facebook is likely to be relatively accurate, people do have a tendency to try to appear happier than they really are, by highlighting positive events and emotions over negative ones (Qiu et al., 2012).
It’s difficult to lie about factual information on Facebook, unless someone is fabricating a completely false identity with a fake profile. Because the social network is large and includes dozens of people who already know you offline, if you lie about your age, occupation, or other such information, these people will know. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, online communication with individuals that we know offline is marked by less lying than in-person communication, and the Facebook social network to a large extent involves presenting information to those in our offline social network.
This means that if you meet people via Facebook, you’re likely to be getting a relatively accurate impression of their overall personality.
Who is more likely to lie online?
Some people are more prone to deceptive behavior online than others, such as those high in sensation-seeking, and those who show addictive behavior toward the Internet (Lu, 2008). Sensation-seekers are also more likely to be dishonest offline. Those who are introverted or high in social anxiety are especially likely to be honest about their personalities online, revealing hidden aspects of the self that they don’t normally show to others offline (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2002; McKenna et al., 2002).
Research on online dating sites has shown that men tend to lie more than women, with the exception being that women are more likely than men to lie about their weight (Hall et al., 2010). In addition, those high in the trait of self-monitoring are more likely to be dishonest on these sites. In all aspects of their social lives, self-monitors are concerned with outward appearance and adapt their behavior to match the social situation. Thus, they also tend to be more deceptive in their attempts to attract dates both offline (Rowatt et al., 1998) and online (Hall et al., 2010). Those who are conscientious—reliable, organized, and practical—tend to be more honest in their online dating profiles. Finally, people who are agreeable—cooperative and warm—tend to be more honest when they date online (Hall et al., 2010).
In summary: Who can you trust?
Earlier, I asked you to consider two factors in assessing online honesty: (1) the communication venue, and (2) the topics people lie about. When it comes to the venue, research suggests that we’re most honest on social networking sites and least honest on dating sites. When it comes to what we lie about, we’re most honest about our personality, and least honest about our physical appearance.
Despite the fact that the Internet makes it easy to fabricate major lies, most of our online lies are minor, suggesting that, overall, we’re pretty honest on the Internet. But this doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind in pursuing online relationships or that there are not some people who do greatly misrepresent themselves online. Basic safety precautions should be taken when meeting an online friend offline for the first time, just as you would with anyone you don’t know well. But this research suggests that we shouldn’t be so quick to distrust those we meet online.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
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