Several years ago I was chatting on an online dating site with a man who claimed to have a graduate degree. When I asked him what his degree was he revealed that in reality he had spent six years in community college repeatedly starting, but failing to complete, programs. His comment was, “I could have been a doctor by now!” To which I responded, “Good bye.”
No one likes to be deceived by a person with whom you hope to one day develop a trusting relationship. It is perhaps for this reason that studies have shown that, unlike this guy, lies on dating profiles are generally quite minor. Men make themselves a little taller (by about 1”) and women make themselves a little thinner (by about 8 pounds). But unless you spent a summer working at a local fair guessing peoples' weight and height, the deceptions are so small, on average, that most people probably wouldn’t pick them out in a first date.
A recent study finds some evidence, though, that one particular group of online daters is more prone to lying than others – and that is people who are less physically attractive.
In the study, 69 currently active online daters were invited to come into a lab. They were given their online dating profile and asked to rate the level of deception of specific elements of the profile on a scale of one to five. They were objectively measured for weight and height and asked to provide proof of their age. Finally they were photographed in three poses, one of which replicated their main profile picture.
Judges (undergraduate students) rated -- on a scale of one to ten -- the pictures taken in the lab and the main profile picture for attractiveness. A measure of “photographic self-enhancement” was determined as the attractiveness rating of the profile picture minus the attractiveness rating of the picture taken in the lab that replicated the profile picture.
They found that less attractive people were more likely to have chosen a profile picture in which they were significantly more attractive than they were in everyday life. Women appeared to used this form of deception more than did men. (I personally suspect, though, that this gender difference has less to do with male versus female deception and more to do with how much make-up a woman wears in the middle of the day to a lab experiment compared to when out for a date.)
They also found that the less attractive a person was the more likely they were to have lied about objective measures of physical attractiveness such as height and weight. In general, women were not any more deceptive in their profiles regarding physical attractiveness than were men.
Interestingly, especially given that we have already seen that men can compensate for being less attractive by having higher incomes (in my very first post here on Dollar and Sex), in this study there is little evidence that less physically attractive people were more guilty of elevating their social status. They weren’t any more likely than more attractive people to over report their income, education or occupation levels.
One point about this study: the participants ranged in age from 18 to 53, and yet the judges ranged in age from 18 to 22. I cannot be the only one who thinks that a 20 year-old judging the attractiveness of a 50 year-old online dater is going to necessarily give a lower attractiveness score than might a judge who is closer to the participant’s age. I raise this issue because the strongest results in the paper are the ones measuring photographic self-deception, where people have posted pictures of themselves in which they appear significantly more attractive than they do in everyday life.
The older a dater is the more likely it is that they have posted a profile picture in which they are younger. Eighteen year-olds do not post five year old pictures while a fifty year old might. I am not sure why the researchers didn’t control for age in their regressions. If they had, they might have found not that less attractive people were more deceptive, but that older people were more deceptive.
Older women operate on a very competitive market where they are compared not only with women in their age cohort but also women who are much younger than themselves.
If they deceive in their profiles it is probably not because they evaluate themselves as being less attractive, and feel the need to compensate for that fact, but because they accurately assess that they need to do that in order to attract the attention of men who prefer to spend their time chatting online with women who could be their daughters.
This raises a more general issue and that is the underlying assumption that men and women are good at assessing their place on the market in terms of physical attractiveness. I have said this before, but I always think that researchers need to control for how long a person has been trying to find a mate online. It seems likely that if you post your profile, and then have no success, you will eventually want to go back and tweak your profile in order to be captured in more searches.
Less attractive people are bound to spend longer looking for love online. If people “revise” their profile over time in the hope of attracting more attention then, in the data, it will look like less attractive people are more deceptive. They might also be using an older picture simply because that is the one they put up when they started the process and have failed to update it as they have aged. If this is the case, then the relationship between deception and attractiveness is not a result of people assessing themselves as being less attractive, it's just a function of time on the market.
Online dating technology appears to have changed the way we measure a potential mate’s worth. I can’t imagine a 75-year-old women looking back on her marriage and reflecting that she might have been happier had her husband just been one inch taller. Or a 75 year-old man looking at the mother of his children and thinking that if she had only been curvy, instead of just plump, his life with her would have been so much better. If people deceive in their online profiles it is because they perceive that these qualities are actually important enough to lie about. I would love to see some evidence that in terms of quality of long-term matches that this is actually the case.
Toma, C. L. and J. T. Hancock. 2010. "Looks and Lies: The Role of Physical Attractiveness in Online Dating Self-Presentation and Deception" Communication Research, 37(3): 335.