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Lying Online

The use of deception to find a mate.


Online dating is a great way to meet others, especially for those who work non-traditional hours or have very busy schedules. Online dating gives people access to a multitude of profiles, thereby enlarging one's dating pool.

While online dating is commonplace now, it was not always seen as a good approach to finding a potential match. In fact many people once viewed those searching for mates online as “desperate.” Data from the Pew Research Center showed that 29% of people polled in 2005 agreed with the statement, “People who use online dating sites are desperate"; 23% still agreed with this statement in 2015 (Smith & Anderson, 2016). While attitudes are shifting, and there is now less stigma surrounding this approach, many people still have apprehension about seeking a connection online.

One common fear people have about using an online platform to find a match is whether the profiles presented are accurate depictions of individuals or if they were even crafted by those individuals themselves. The aforementioned Pew Research Center poll has shown that people do solicit help in creating their profiles, whether with their photos or in writing their bios. Therefore, the words seen on the screen may indeed not have been written by the person the profile is depicting. One-in-five online daters have asked someone else to help them with their profile, with a majority of the help-seekers being women (Smith & Anderson, 2016).


Online daters may also misrepresent themselves. People often present the best version of themselves to attract potential mates, which is not necessarily an accurate depiction of who they are in real life. Research by Toma, Hancock, and Ellison (2008) showed that people tend to lie in their profiles in a way that enhances what they perceive as attractive to potential mates.

Toma et al. (2008) examined 80 participants, 40 men and 40 women, who used online dating sites in New York City. All participants were provided with printed copies of their online dating profiles and were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how accurate each of their answers were. Since participants were using a variety of sites, 15 items common to each platform were selected — age, height, body type, hair color, eye color, occupation, education, income, relationship status, children, smoking, drinking, interests, political views, and religion. Participants also rated, on a 1 to 5 scale, the social acceptability of lying on each item. In the last part of the study, objective measures of the participants’ height, weight, and age were made by the researchers.

To examine the results, five separate composite categories, created from the aforementioned 15 profile items, were analyzed — physical appearance, social status, relationship information, habits, and interests. Results demonstrated that participants rated themselves as most accurate when it came to their relationship information (including relationship status) and that men's and women’s self-accuracy scores did not differ.

When it came to actual characteristics, results showed that 81% of participants lied on at least one. Weight was lied about most frequently, followed by height. It's important to note that the magnitude of the deception was not large: While the participants lied, the number they provided did not deviate much from the truth. Essentially, this deception would be hard to detect in person upon meeting the potential partner.

There was no relationship between lying on one characteristic and lying on another. For example, if a person lied about his or her weight, that did not make them more likely to lie about their height. This suggests that people lie about what they believe will make them more attractive to a potential partner, and were not liars in general.

When it came to gender differences, results demonstrated that men overestimated their height and women underestimated their weight. Again, this underscores the potential motivation for lying — to appear attractive to a mate based on perceptions of what it is a partner wants. Overall, while a lot of people lie, the magnitude is small.

What was particularly interesting about the study was that participants’ ratings of their accuracy in presenting themselves correlated with observed accuracy. This demonstrated that the deception is intentional. Basically, people are lying to present themselves a certain way and are not just conveying the inaccurate views they may hold of themselves. People are cognizant of the lies they are presenting.

Additional research has also noted gender differences. Hancock and Toma (2008) examined dating profile photos of 54 online daters. While the participants rated their photos as accurate representations of themselves, independent coders found that a third of the photos were not accurate. Female photos were judged as less accurate and were more likely to be contain inconsistencies such as retouching. Females were also more likely to present professional photos.


Many fear that the people they are talking to online may be completely different individuals (i.e., “catfishing”). These extreme cases are far and few between, but because of the magnitude of the lie, they often get circulated widely. While deception is common, the lie itself is usually something small. Online daters should exercise caution when meeting a person to ascertain if there are any discrepancies from what was presented in the profile. However, they should not be apprehensive about a person completely misrepresenting himself or herself. This is not meant to diminish the seriousness of the problems with lying; however, the research should allay some of the fears associated with online dating and help reduce the stigma


Hancock, J. T., & Toma, C. L. (2009). Putting your best face forward: The accuracy of online dating photographs. Journal of Communication, 59(2), 367-386.

Smith, A., & Anderson, M. (2016). 5 facts about online dating. Retrieved from…

Toma, C. L., Hancock, J. T., & Ellison, N. B. (2008). Separating fact from fiction: An examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1023-1036.

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