Self presentation and deception in online dating

Online dating profiles typically consist of short?answer questions (e.g., age, height, weight, relational status), long?answer questions (e.g., “about me” section), and photographs. When constructing their profile self?presentation, online daters have been shown to experience a tension between authenticity, or presenting a veridical self, and impression management, or presenting a highly positive self (Ellison, Heino, & Gibbs, 2006).

Authenticity is a desirable self?presentational strategy because deception, if detected, has negative repercussions on relational development, and because daters may seek partners who like them for who they truly are. Impression management is appealing because it can help daters stand out and gain attention from potential mates. Research shows that online daters resolve this tension by presenting elements of their ideal self—an enhanced yet attainable version of self (Ellison et al., 2006).

An explicit study of the prevalence of deception in online dating profiles shows that deception occurs frequently, but it is small in magnitude. Eighty percent of daters lied either about height, weight, or age, but deviations from the truth were small and potentially imper-ceptible in face?to?face encounters. Daters’ relational status was found to be the most honestly presented element of the profile, whereas their photographs were the most embellished (Toma, Hancock, & Ellison, 2008)

The theoretical framework of selective self?presentation (Walther, 1996) has been advanced to explicate these patterns of self?presentation in online dating profiles. According to this theory, online communicators have at their disposal an arsenal of tech-nological affordances that enable them to exercise more control over their statements than do face?to?face communicators. Specifically, asynchronicity allows them to take all the time they need for profile construction, editability allows them to revise and refine claims until they are optimal, and the reallocation of cognitive resources allows them to dedicate all their attention and thought to profile construction. Armed with these capa-bilities, online daters can construct strategic self?presentations that draw upon their actual and ideal selves and utilize the optimal amount of deception, as described earlier.

Mate selection in online dating

A small body of research has begun to investigate how online daters form impressions of others based on profiles, and how they choose whom to date. Findings show that, when analyzing others’ profiles, online daters pay attention to both explicit claims, particularly photographs, and unintentional behavioral residue, such as grammatical ability (Ellison et al., 2009). Another study found that participants think of online dating as a virtual market, where numerous potential mates are available, and desired ones can be found simply by entering partner specifications into search boxes.

For this reason, the process of mate selection has been conceptualized as relationshopping (Heino, Ellison, & Gibbs, 2010). Online daters’ shopping mentality has been speculated to negatively affect commit-ment and satisfaction with dates, although future research is necessary to test this claim.Mate selection through online dating has also been explained through an evolu-tionary theory lens, with hardwired preferences (e.g., physical attractiveness, social status) manifesting themselves in this novel arena in similar ways as in face?to?face dating. For instance, men were shown to be more likely to initiate contact and to have a disproportional interest in women’s physical attractiveness, whereas women had an interest in men with high social status (Hitsch, Hortaçsu, & Ariely, 2010).

Success of online dating

One recent study found small but statistically significant differences in marital out-comes between couples who had met offline and online: Online couples were less likely to get divorced within a 7?year period, and among those who had stayed together, online couples reported greater marital satisfaction (Cacioppo et al., 2013). The effects emerged even when controlling for variables known to affect marriage outcomes, such as length of relationship, age, ethnicity, education, household income, and employment status. However, it is yet unknown what aspects of the online dating process cause superior outcomes for online couples.

Theories of intimate relationships purport that romantic success is contingent on (a) individual characteristics of the partners (e.g., personalities, personal histories, attitudes, beliefs, values); (b) the unique communication patterns developed between partners; and c) external circumstances, such as chronic and acute stress, experienced during the course of the relationship. Since online dating does not track partners over time, nor does it capture their dyadic communication patterns, it can only operate at the level of individual characteristics of the partners (see Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis, & Sprecher, 2012)

System?selection Web sites make explicit claims that they deliver better partners by using proprietary algorithms to determine compatibility of personalities, values, beliefs, and preferences. This compatibility appears to be operationalized as homophily, or similarity between individuals, although it is possible that it also contains elements of complementarity. These claims have not yet been empirically tested.

The face?to?face literature does not support the notion that homophily of personality traits leads to successful unions. Additionally, the entire class of individual?level variables has been shown to have only a small effect on romantic outcomes. It is then possible that the success of online dating cannot be accounted for by matching algorithms after all, and is the result of other, yet to be investigated, features. For instance, one possibility, appli-cable to both self? and system?selection Web sites, is that the increased availability of potential partners enables individuals to make better choices for romantic partners, eventually leading to more successful unions.

Since matching algorithms are proprietary to dating companies and have not yet been subjected to scientific inquiry in the academic community, it is also possible that these algorithms are indeed successful, as they tap into yet?to?be theorized processes of romantic compatibility. Future research is necessary to investigate this possibility.

Tiffany Brony Amar

I'm Senior Level Management professional, used to consulting at board level. I enjoy the achievement to be found in creating winning partnerships.