February 16, 2007

Online Dating Persona Differs From Reality

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Skeptical about looking for love online? A new study by Prof. Jeffrey Hancock, communication and information science, and Catalina Toma grad lays out the truths and misconceptions about online dating.

Toma and Hancock decided to try a new research technique to match up the daters’ profiles to their actual appearances: they weighed them, measured their height and obtained their age from their driver’s licenses. This method differs from earlier studies because the researchers are actually taking the measurements themselves, instead of asking the participants to come clean about their measurements — or their lies.

“You can never tell if someone is telling the truth about their lies,” Hancock said.
Collecting the data proved to be no easy task. It took nearly six months to recruit 80 participants from the New York City area who used the online websites Match.com, Yahoo Personals, American Singles and Webdate. Toma then had to persuade participants to get on a scale and take part in a two-hour meeting. The incentive was $30.
They found that 52.6 percent of men and 39 percent of women lied about their height. In terms of weight, 64.1 percent of women and 60.5 percent of men altered reality for the virtual dating scene. Age was less of an issue, with 24.3 percent of the men and 13.1 percent of the women providing incorrect information.

“People lied a lot, but that means they lied often but not by much,” Hancock said.
In most cases, height was rounded up by half an inch, and weight was rounded down between five to ten pounds. The further a person deviated from an average weight for their height, the larger the person’s lie tended to be.

Toma and Hancock discovered that while people were obviously lying to appear more appealing to the opposite sex, they also needed to be relatively honest because they expect a face-to-face meeting. The daters needed to strike a delicate balance between these two concerns in order to succeed in the online dating world.

The reasoning behind the fibs was explained in part by Toma, who defined the two main trains of thought surrounding this behavior. People want to present themselves as well as they can in order to appeal to the opposite sex. However, they are also seeking unconditional acceptance and want to be loved for who they really are.

“They are forced to balance these ideals by lying marginally, but frequently,” Toma said.
The need to lie is stimulated by evolutionary behavior, according to Toma and Hancock. For example, women naturally seek the strongest man who will be able to protect and provide for the family, so taller, wealthier men are more attractive. Both men and women are in tune to the subliminal desires of the opposite sex, and alter their profiles to appeal to this primal instinct, according to Hancock.

When asked how much they had lied, “people were relatively up front about it,” Hancock said. Often there are publicized cases of gross exaggerations in online profiles, but in the long run, most of the daters’ motives were good, according to Toma.

Does this mean that online dating should be sworn off as a collection of deceptive traps? Not necessarily. When asked if he would participate in online dating after conducting this research, Hancock replied with no hesitation, “Yes, definitely.”