Bizarre as this tale is, it illustrates the ease with which people blur fact and fiction in cyberspace. This is especially true of online dating sites, where most people lie about themselves, some shading the truth just a little, others quite a lot.
Ron James, who over an 18-month period emailed six hundred women he had “met” through JDate (ultimately dating 40 to 50 of them), discovered that many of the women had lied about their ages, posted old photos, and misrepresented what they did for a living. “I learned to watch out for sunglasses,” James said.
“Four out of five people misrepresent themselves,” James Harwood, a Northwestern University psychology professor, told me after he had analyzed all the science on online dating he could find. One of the studies, led by Catalina Toma at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, surveyed 80 online daters. After they had created their profiles, the researchers followed up with a tape measure, a scale, and a request to see their driver’s licenses. The results? Eighty-one percent of the online daters had fibbed, inaccurately reporting their basic details in ways they hoped wouldn’t be detected (women made themselves eight and a half pounds thinner, on average).
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Together with several colleagues, Harwood conducted several lab experiments that mimicked the main features of online dating. In the process he happened on some unsettling findings. “Women are heavier than their profiles say they are. Men are a bit shorter and have fewer resources than they say they do. But the biggest problem,” he said, “is not that people misrepresent themselves, but that we’re not very good at describing what attracts us. When you meet someone you’re attracted to, you just don’t have the insight about why.”
Sexual attraction is a lot like what they say about art. Or wine. Or porn. You can’t put into words what you like about it, but you know it when you see it. One of Harwood’s experiments asked 106 research subjects to come up with three essential traits in an ideal romantic partner. They also asked for three of the least important or least desired qualities in a mate. Would you absolutely require your future beloved to be ambitious? Affectionate? Broadminded? Generous? It was a lot like what dating sites ask of us—to describe exactly what we want. “You fill out a bunch of questionnaires about an ideal partner, then later you encounter something like that person. We rigged it so that the person matches or mismatches your ideal mate,” is how Harwood explained his experiment.
The results showed that their university-aged subjects were predictably keen to meet someone whose profile matched their must-have criteria—at least on paper. But when they were actually thrown together in a room with that perfect match, the subjects weren’t all that attracted to their dreamboats. In a live, face-to-face situation, their criteria didn’t predict who they found hot any more than their list of “avoids” predicted revulsion. It turns out that most of us don’t know who will turn us on any more than we can predict what will make us happy in the future.
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