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Online Dating with a Dash of Deception

What does dishonesty look like in online dating, and does it work?

Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock
Source: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

In the quest for love, a first date can feel like a job interview, only you’re the applicant and the interviewer all at once. And much like the hunt for talent, the search for a romantic partner involves finding someone with the right qualifications to fill the position, whether that’s shared principles and life goals, compatible habits, and interests, or other qualities that are especially meaningful to you. Perhaps you’re also looking for someone with that indescribable something that makes the time together enjoyable and leaves you feeling comfortable with them, whether or not you quite know why. And if you’re like most folks, you’ll probably agree that first dates can be anxiety-producing affairs in which people feel observed and evaluated. They bring vulnerability and uncertainty, with the potential for acceptance suspended alongside the possibility of rejection as the mind mumbles, “How will this thing turn out?

In a high-pressure context like this, it’s pretty natural for people to wonder what their date thinks of them. If someone is really attracted to their date, they’ll hope for approval and the chance to go out again, and they’ll be more inclined to reveal details to boost their own standing in their date’s eyes (e.g., sharing a love of classic movies if their date is a fan too). But it’s not only about which truths people disclose. The business of being appealing can also involve a bit of deception.

Deception doesn’t discriminate between the forms of communication people use. To be sure, it takes place in online and offline forms of courtship alike, and it’s understandable why. When people are striving to appear pleasant and capable, an aim that’s virtually universal in the world of modern dating, they’re more prone to fib. But in this piece, we’re going to keep our attention on online dating, and there are a couple of reasons why.

First, online dating is enjoying unprecedented popularity. According to a 2017 survey, 19% of people online were giving dating sites a try at that moment (this includes dating apps), and most of those folks (84%) were using them to find a romantic partner. What’s more, 31% of individuals polled in a 2018 survey said they’ve gone on a “real-world” date with someone they met through a dating site. And roughly one in four people (23%) in that same survey said a dating website lead them to a more serious romantic partnership. Online dating has become so extensive that it’s starting to take the place of a host of offline ways people used to find a relationship, such as a campus, the working world, and one’s social circle.

Second, the interpersonal dynamics of online dating are different than offline dating, at least leading up to the point when two people meet in person. And these dynamics are interwoven with how people misrepresent themselves as they endeavor to improve their odds of finding the right person.

One of those dynamics is that online dating profiles keep reaching people and making an impression. Once a profile is out there in the universe, folks could read it at any time (e.g., today, in two weeks, several months, a couple of years) until the person who posted it decides to take it down. And because their profile continues on into the future and isn’t limited to who they are right now, they’re more inclined to depict themselves as the person they’re wishing to be later. An individual who took part in an online dating study shared her own example of this:

I’ve lost 44 pounds since I’ve started [online dating], and I mean, that’s one of the reasons I lost the weight so I can thank online dating for that. [Because] the first guy that hit on me, I checked my profile and I had lied a little bit about the pounds, so I thought I had better start losing some weight so that it would be more honest.

A second dynamic is that online dating profiles compel people to share what they wouldn’t have needed to directly say before. When you meet someone in person, you’re able to take in a variety of qualities automatically without any need for them to come out and tell you, like how tall they are or how warm and engaging they are. But in an online dating profile, a host of qualities like these need to be very plainly and specifically conveyed, which can be challenging, vulnerable, and loaded with pressure. What words do you choose to depict your physique? How do you articulate your character? Or what if you have to pick an answer from a predetermined select of labels or phrases? How do you manage that online? It’s rough going. For instance, a man talked about this problem with online dating researchers when it comes to his shaved head, noting, “I resent having to check ‘bald.’”

Finally, a third dynamic involves ideas about what others are doing. People in the online dating sphere tend to think that most folks distort their profile to some degree. And this perspective can give them a sense of permission to do a little fabricating of their own. Another person from the same online dating research I've been quoting aptly expressed this mindset:

Everybody lies about their age or a lot of people do…So I have to cheat too in order to be on the same page as everybody else that cheats. If I don’t cheat that makes me seem twice as old. So if I say I am 44, people think that I am 48.

But do a lot of individuals fib in their profile? It appears they do, with 81% of people in one study admitting to lying in at least one of the ways they described themselves. Fibs are also more likely to occur in some topics than in others, with the most common being weight, height, and age, in that order; other instances of deception in profiles include hobbies, financial means, and personal qualities. And in spite of the pretty significant fictions that can appear, in most cases any untruths are on the smaller side. But the science is a bit mixed when it comes to these lesser lies in profiles. Some research tells us that people are inclined to view them as okay, whereas other results indicate that they tend to look down on dishonesty in a profile.

Regardless, profiles aren’t the end of the story. There’s usually an exchange of emails or direct messages as two people sort out whether they actually want to invest the time and energy to meet, and deception can crop up at this stage as well. And even though confessions of profile dishonesty can and do happen once people start interacting with each other online, misstatements in the profile viewing stage arguably lay the groundwork for those distortions to continue later in the private online communication stage. After all, once deception has entered the scene, it’s not always easy to take it back.

But let’s set aside the question of whether it’s allowable to be a little dishonest when you’re conversing with someone online and ask a simpler, more basic question: Does it improve your chances with that person?

Although the aim of lying in this context is usually to spark a romantic connection, research reveals that it can have the opposite impact. A 2019 study examined people’s email communication with someone they were interested in and how their first date went later. According to the results, if people become suspicious that their date has been dishonest in their emails, this is connected to dwindling attraction and less interest in going out on another date. And it doesn’t take a lot of deception for this to occur, just a limited amount. But why would such a backlash happen? Much as people may anticipate a bit of deception in dating profiles, they also expect sincerity when they’re interacting with someone. And when they don’t get it, they’re less prone to go for date number two.

So what does all of this imply? Should people spotlight all their flaws or post an unflattering photo? Not at all. It makes perfect sense to want to call attention to one’s positive qualities, sort of like when someone in a job interview wears a nice outfit, truthfully lists the talents and skills they possess, and accurately outlines their accomplishments.

And let’s be honest (no pun intended), when the goal is to stand out amidst the dating throng and find a partner, it’s human to feel tempted to lie a little to reduce the chances of being passed over or rejected. To say that dating can be a lively adventure is to acknowledge only half of the journey. It can also feel like an unnerving uphill struggle at times. Nevertheless, little deceptions run the risk of bringing about the very rejections they’re intended to prevent. In the end, the willingness to be both positive and genuine may provide the best self-advertising of all.


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