Online dating profiles show how attraction, trust and deception play into the quest for romance

By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM

Published: November 12, 2011

THERE are millions of Americans seeking love on the Internet. Little do they know that teams of scientists are eagerly watching them trying to find it.

ike contemporary Margaret Meads, these scholars have gathered data from dating sites like Match.com, OkCupid and Yahoo! Personals to study attraction, trust, deception — even the role of race and politics in prospective romance.

They have observed, for instance, that many daters would rather admit to being fat than liberal or conservative, that white people are reluctant to date outside their race and that there are ways to detect liars. Such findings spring from attempts to answer a broader question that has bedeviled humanity since Adam and Eve: how and why do people fall in love?

“There is relatively little data on dating, and most of what was out there in the literature about mate selection and relationship formation is based on U.S. Census data,” said Gerald A. Mendelsohn, a professor in the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley.

His research involving more than one million online dating profiles was partly financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation. “This now gives an access to dating that we never really had before,” He said. (Collectively, the major dating sites had more than 593 million visits in the United States last month, according to the Internet tracking firm Experian Hitwise.)

Andrew T. Fiore, a data scientist at Facebook and a former visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, said that unlike laboratory studies, “online dating provides an ecologically valid or true-to-life context for examining the risks, uncertainties and rewards of initiating real relationships with real people at an unprecedented scale.”

“As more and more of life happens online, it’s less and less the case that online is a vacuum,” he added. “It is life.”

Of the romantic partnerships formed in the United States between 2007 and 2009, 21 percent of heterosexual couples and 61 percent of same-sex couples met online, according to a study by Michael J. Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford. (Scholars said that most studies using online dating data are about heterosexuals, because they make up more of the population.)

Dating sites and academics have gotten cozy before; the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers, for example, is Chemistry.com’s chief scientific adviser, and she helped develop the site, a sister site to Match.com.

But scholars are also pursuing academic research using anonymous profile content given to them as a professional courtesy by dating sites. Often the researchers supplement that with surveys and in-person interviews by recruiting online daters through advertisements on campuses, in newspapers and on Web sites like Craigslist.

Here’s some of what they have learned, including maxims for singles: why opposites don’t attract and honesty is not always the best policy.

TRUTHINESS

Do online daters have a propensity to lie? Do we really need scientists to answer this question?

If you are curious about numbers: about 81 percent of people misrepresent their height, weight or age in their profiles, according to a study led by Catalina L. Toma, an assistant professor in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wanted to learn more about how people present themselves and how they judge misrepresentation. On the bright side: people tend to tell small lies because, after all, they may eventually meet in person.

Professor Toma; Jeffrey T. Hancock, an associate professor at Cornell; and Nicole B. Ellison, an associate professor in the department of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University, interviewed online daters in New York City, weighed and measured them, photographed them, checked their ages against their driver’s licenses and studied their dating profiles.

On average, the women described themselves as 8.5 pounds thinner in their profiles than they really were. Men fibbed by 2 pounds, though they lied by a greater magnitude than women about their height, rounding up a half inch (apparently every bit counts).

People were most honest about their age, something Professor Toma said is probably because they can claim ignorance about weight and height. Even so, in a different study she found that women’s profile photographs were on average a year and a half old. Men’s were on average six months old.

“Daters lie to meet the expectations of what they think their audience is,” Professor Toma said.

A paper to be published in the Journal of Communication used computer analysis to show that four linguistic indictors can help detect lying in the personal essay of a dating profile.

Liars tend to use fewer first-person pronouns. Professor Toma said this is an indication of psychological distancing: “You’re feeling guilty or anxious or nervous.” Liars use more negative words like “not” and “never,” yet another way of putting up a buffer. Liars use fewer negative emotion words like “sad” and “upset,” and they write shorter online personal essays. (It’s easier not to get caught if you say less.)

Scholars say a certain amount of fibbing is socially acceptable — even necessary — to compete in the online dating culture. Professor Ellison’s research shows that lying is partly a result of tension between the desire to be truthful and the desire to put one’s best face forward. So profiles often describe an idealized self; one with qualities they intend to develop (i.e., “I scuba dive”) or things they once had (i.e., a job). Some daters bend the truth to fit into a wider range of search parameters; others unintentionally misrepresent their personalities because self-knowledge is imperfect.

The standard of embellishment can frustrate the honest. “So if I say I am 44, people think that I am 48,” said one man interviewed by Professor Ellison and colleagues in a separate study.

But there is an upside to deception: it may inspire one to, as Professor Ellison put it, “close the gap between actual and ideal self.” One interviewee lied about her weight in her profile, and it was all the motivation she needed. She subsequently lost 44 pounds while online dating.

GUESS WHO’S NOT COMING TO DINNER

“Stick to your own kind,” goes the “West Side Story” refrain, a phenomenon that sociologists call homophily: love of the same. And they have observed this among online daters. But here is what they did not expect to discover: a very high rate of same-ethnicity dating.

“One of the theories of how the Internet might affect dating is that it might erode the tendency of people to mate with people like themselves,” said Professor Rosenfeld of Stanford. “I really expected there to be more interracial relationships for meeting online. And it wasn’t true.”

Research on a major dating site between February 2009 and February 2010 by Professor Mendelsohn and his colleagues shows that more than 80 percent of the contacts initiated by white members were to other white members, and only 3 percent to black members. Black members were less rigid: they were 10 times more likely to contact whites than whites were to contact blacks.

“What you’ve got is basically the reluctance of white Americans to date and to contact members of other ethnicities, particularly African-Americans,” he said. “We are nowhere near the post-racial age.”

Professor Mendelsohn set out to study relationship formation, not ethnicity. Yet along the way he found that white more than black, women more than men, and old more than young prefer a same-race partner.

Some people indicated that they were willing to date different ethnicities, but they didn’t. “What people say they want in a mate and what qualities they actually seek don’t tend to correspond,” said Coye Cheshire, an associate professor at the School of Information at Berkeley who has studied this with Mr. Fiore, Professor Mendelsohn and Lindsay Shaw Taylor, a member of the school’s self, identity and relationships lab.

HE SAID, SHE SAID

Gender parity, it seems, isn’t sexy. Women want men who are — wait for it — tall and wealthy, according to online dating research by Gunter J. Hitsch and Ali Hortacsu at the University of Chicago, and Dan Ariely of Duke. The researchers have examined thousands of dating profiles that included height, weight and, in many cases, photographs. They found that women prefer men who are slightly overweight, while men prefer women who are slightly underweight and who do not tower over them. These were the women who had the best chance of receiving an introductory e-mail from a man.

And even though men may get away with carrying a few extra pounds, they are also burdened with the expectation of carrying a fatter wallet: The scholars found that women have a stronger preference than men do for income over physical attributes.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Decades of findings about political ideology suggest that it is in part passed from parents to children, said Rose McDermott, a professor of political science at Brown University. And because previous studies show that people in long marriages align politically (the crackling example of James Carville and Mary Matalin aside), she wanted to study how people end up with like-minded mates.

Professor McDermott and colleagues at the University of Miami and Penn State examined 2,944 dating profiles, and few people were willing to express a political preference or interest in politics. Professor McDermott suspects that this is because they wanted to attract as many dates as possible.

But though it could make for an interesting campaign year, such daters could be making a mistake if they are seeking long-term partners.

“I was personally really shocked,” said Professor McDermott, whose study was published this year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. “People were much more likely to say ‘I’m fat’ than ‘I’m a conservative.’ ”

 

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