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What Can Online Dating Really Tell You?

How people misrepresent themselves online

Source: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

In addition to using online dating for hook-ups, casual sex or just to boost self-esteem by being approached by others, many may genuinely be using the service for the purpose of seeking out a long term sustainable relationship. If this is the case, then what information can we actually discover about someone from an online dating site alone?

Think about it this way. Males and females have different needs in terms of what they require from a relationship partner. Typically males seek out females who are physically attractive. However for females, the principal function of mate choice is to obtain the best genes they can from a male partner. Females also need to ensure that they secure a mate who exhibits good parenting skills and also a mate who has the resources to support them and their offspring (Miller & Todd, 1998). Females therefore need a lot more information before committing.

The dilemma

The longer a female spends making a decision about which male she should select, and the more choices she considers, should in theory lead her to a better decision. However, this process cannot go on indefinitely, and eventually a choice will need to be made regarding the male she chooses. Therefore, can online dating facilitate good partner choice or is the process of online dating a risky one?

The information available in online dating

Long & Campbell (2015) gave a list of 25 characteristics which were relevant to mate selection to twenty two undergraduate females between the ages of 19 and 21. They asked their participants to select the point in time at which they believed the information on each characteristic would become evident. Four points in time were used which were:

  • Can tell without even talking to them
  • Would be obvious after a few minutes of conversation
  • Would know after a few meetings
  • Would know only after becoming quite intimate

In an online dating environment, only the first two stages outlined above would be available, that is ‘can tell without talking to them’ (viewing their profile picture) and ‘would be obvious after only a brief conversation’ (brief period of online chat).

The male characteristics which participants judged to be evident without even talking to someone were:

  • Attractive face
  • Attractive body
  • Fashion sense

Those judged to be evident after only a few minutes of conversation were:

Which characteristics are important?

This study then went on to ascertain which characteristics females rated as important in a male. The list was topped by:

  • Sexual fidelity
  • Kindness
  • Moral character

At the bottom of the list were:

The characteristics participants judged could be ascertained without even talking to someone ‘attractive face’, ‘attractive body’ and ‘fashion sense’, came 20th, 21st and 24th on a list of twenty five items. Of those judged to be obvious after just a few minutes of conversation, only two were in the top half of the list, and were sense of humour (4th) and friendly (6th). Therefore, the characteristics revealed via online dating are not judged to be high in importance.

And what can we really tell anyway?

In addition to the very limited amount of information disclosed online, people also have far more control over how they present themselves in such an environment. Therefore in online dating, users are able to impression manage how they appear and sound to others. According to Whitty and Carr (2006), this may lead to misrepresentation in online profiles.

How people misrepresent themselves

In Whitty and Carr’s study, participants reported that they would be annoyed at anyone who didn’t really tell the truth in their dating profiles, yet they reported that they lied in their own profiles, with the main motivation behind lying being to attract a suitable partner.

Females were more likely to use an outdated photo or misrepresent their looks than males. Lying in a photo perhaps meaning using a profile picture which was more than one year out of date. For females the percentage was 46.7% compared to 6.7% for males. This is consistent with the fact that males tend to place a greater emphasis on how females look in comparison to females assessing how males look, which means that females have a higher motivation to misrepresent in this case. Interestingly, people did not really see this as misrepresenting, but merely exaggerating.

In terms of the information posted about their relationship status or having family living with them, males misrepresented this information 13.3% of the time compared to 6.7% for females. For age, males misrepresented information 10% of the time, compared to 3.3% for females and for weight, males and females represented 6.7% of the time.

Consistent with what evolutionary psychology might predict males embellish their socio-economic status more than females and hence they lied about this 6.7% of the time compared to just 3.3% of the time for females. Finally, males misrepresented their interests 10% of the time, compared to 0% of the time for females.

The message from these two studies seems simple. You can’t glean much from online dating alone, and the information you get may be misrepresented. You may argue that it is quite often the case for people to be untruthful or misrepresent themselves in face to face encounters also. However, online, people are far less inhibited, and the temptation to misrepresent is greater.

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  • Long, M. L. & Campbell, A. (2015) ‘Female mate choice: A comparison between accept-the-best and reject-the-worst strategies in sequential decision making’ Evolutionary Psychology, 1-6.
  • Miller, G. F., & Todd, P. M. (1998). ‘Mate choice turns cognitive.’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 190–198.
  • Whitty, M. T. & Carr, A. N. (2006). Cyberspace romance: The psychology of online relationships. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.