Spotting Liars in Online Dating

Illustration by Vahram Muradyan

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” read the caption to a famous Peter Steiner cartoon, and nowhere is it truer than online dating. The experience is by now familiar: the potential mate who seemed just your type in a profile turns out to be a dud in person.

There may be ways, however, to spot a liar before you find yourself across from him or her at a candlelit table. Researchers from Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison compared the actual heights, weights, and ages of 78 online daters to their dating profiles on four matchmaking websites. They noticed several patterns from people who were less than honest. They were less likely to refer to themselves as “I”; used indirect adjectives, like “not boring” instead of “exciting”; and stuck to short descriptions.

“Liars do this because they want to distance themselves from their deceptive statements,” explained Catalina Toma, an author of the study, in a statement. Using these indicators, the researchers correctly identified liars about 65 percent of the time.

People fibbed most frequently about their weight, with women slimming down, on average, by 8.5 pounds, and men by 1.5 pounds. At least half the subjects altered their height, and nearly 20 percent changed their age.

Despite the frequency of lies, volunteers proved poor at catching them. Toma and the team’s research opens up the possibility of software that could spot dishonesties for you, though daters should be careful what they wish for—nearly everyone in the study lied in some small way.