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Men and women both lie in dating profiles, but not about the same things

One study estimated that 80% of people include “deviations” from the truth in their online profiles.
Credit: twinsterphoto / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • 80% of people lie about themselves in their dating profiles. But what they lie about likely depends on their sex.
  • Men tend to be attracted to the physical aspects of a woman, while women tend to be attracted to a man’s ability to provide. Knowing this, the sexes differ in how they lie — and how upset they are about the other’s deceit.
  • The science of attraction is never simple. While there are certain identifiable trends, humans are rarely so easily described.

A tiny, circular profile picture doesn’t give much away. If you add in photoshop, filters, and Google images, then what you see of someone online can often be very far the truth. It’s too much to say that the world of social media and online dating is full of lies, per se, but there’s definitely a barrel-worth of half-truths out there. According to one study, roughly 80% of people include information about themselves that contains “deviations” from the truth.

For example, men tend to lie about their height and women tend to lie about their weight. Both are quite loose about their age and both are the most deceitful about their profile picture. After all, who isn’t guilty of choosing a photo of a younger self, or one where the lighting is favorable, or when you had that really good hair day. None of that is going to get you a prison sentence, but these little deceptions are “ubiquitous and small in magnitude,” the authors noted.

The question, is how do the sexes differ in their courtship deceit? And how do we feel when we find out about it?

What I’m looking for in a partner

It takes only one David Attenborough documentary to teach you that mating rituals involve a lot of pretense. The broad-tailed hummingbird will swoop down from on high to reveal its iridescent throat feathers and to make a pleasant sound. A gorilla will puff out and beat his chest in a show of swoon-worthy masculinity. The black widow spider even does a form of twerk to prevent potential female mates from eating him. A bit of bravado and glamour is nothing new in nature.

With humans, it’s not that much more complicated. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection suggests that we all compete intra- and inter-sexually for reproductive success. In other words, we’re trying to find a good mate and we’re fighting off rivals to do so. So, if we’re looking for evolutionary answers to the science of attraction, we’d expect a degree of species-wide uniformity, right?

It turns out there is. When you look at 33 countries, across six continents and five islands, what you find is that men tend to value “reproductive capacity” while women place greater on value “resource acquisition.” Put another way, men look for physical attractiveness and youth; women look for higher social status and provision.

Unsurprisingly, these tendencies are mirrored in our online dating behavior. There’s little that changes when you move from the primordial cave to the finger-smeared screen. We know that men like profiles of attractive, young, and shorter women. Women prefer profiles of men with high incomes as well as those who appear altruistic. It’s also shown that women gravitate toward lawyers, fire fighters, and servicemen, too.

You lied to me!

A lot of this is anecdotally verifiable, and most people will have worked it out for themselves. A lot of people in the dating game will play to these facts. For instance, Jerry might have a photo with his pet cockapoo and excessively repeat how much he looks after his grandma (he’s so caring after all). Interestingly, one study even proved that men are more charitable when women are watching. Women, on the other hand, tend to “enhance appearance through makeup, jewelry, or obtaining a suntan.”

So, if we know that the different sexes are attracted to different things, then it makes sense that they’d also be upset about being lied to about different things. That is exactly what turns out to be the case. In 2021, a team from Nipissing University, writing in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, interviewed 388 people, aging from 18 to 40, with roughly half being men and half being women. They asked the participants to rank how upset they would be about being deceived over this or that factor, with an extra question of “how likely would you be to cancel a date?” to test subjects’ self-reporting.

What they found was that “men were most upset when deceived about attractiveness compared to women,” whereas “women were more upset than men when lied to about their prospective date’s occupation.” This would seem to support the “what we find attractive” hypotheses above. What’s interesting, though, is that both sexes were equally upset about being deceived “pertaining to volunteerism.” Perhaps, putting lie to the claim that “women, more than men, prefer altruism.”

Bucking the trend

To some people, all of this might seem obvious. But, if you dive into the research more deeply, you find that things are more complicated than first appears.

For one, it’s not simply the case that men value attractiveness more than women. In fact, one study from 2015 found that “in contrast to the findings of previous research, we found no significant sex difference for the value of general physical attractiveness between men and women.” What’s more likely to be the case, then, is that men have a more uniform definition of “attractiveness” than women: youth, build, size, and so on. Women, instead, are more likely to find other aspects important for attractiveness, like intelligence, generosity, humor, and so on. In short, for a lot of women, physical attraction is not defined solely by the physical body.

When you deal in the science of attraction, you have only generalizations to work with. If you’ve been shouting, “This is all nonsense!” at the screen for the last five minutes then, for you, it probably is. There’s nothing about a trend that precludes the possibility that you buck it. Trend-bucking is what humans are great at. In the day-to-day reality of all of us, whom you find attractive is probably as unique as you are.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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