The Truth Behind Online Dating: What Is and Isn’t Real
Though still quite new (relatively) in our culture, and a bit daunting, more and more people are venturing into the online dating world for romance and sex (To read a guide to online dating, click here). Below, I’ve compiled some evidence-based tips to help you navigate online dating websites and, hopefully, find what you’re looking for.
People aren’t always what they seem. Deception is common in online dating—and I’m not talking about Catfishing, I’m talking about people presenting themselves as somewhat better than they actually are (taller, thinner, smarter, sexier, wealthier, fewer cats, etc.). This type of self-enhancement is a subtle form of deception, but deception all the same.1 Most people who make an online dating profile do this, which makes sense because pretty much everyone fudges a little bit. This strategic self-presentation is not limited to online dating; it happens in a lot of different social contexts (consider how we portray ourselves on resumes).
Building on the work of Dan Ariely, a prominent psychologist, most of us cheat, but we cheat just a little bit. Some of us may not even realize it, because our minds trick us into believing that we’re better than we really are.2 Basically, most people are consistently a little bit dishonest about themselves, both online and offline. So, you’re probably doing this too. Keep that in mind before you get too judgmental, and remember that meeting online is just the first step. If the person is dramatically different (older, heavier) than their profile appears, you’ll know it when you meet for a date in person (and meeting in person also has the added benefit of reducing the likelihood of being “Catfished”).
Some might assume that people will be more dishonest in online compared to offline interactions, but the evidence does not support this idea. Some people may actually be more authentic and honest online (especially those who are shy or introverted).3,4 These studies also show that people who are more honest about themselves on the Internet are also more likely to form relationships that begin online. So in general, there’s no reason to assume that most people will be more dishonest if you initially encounter them online compared to encountering them offline.
The matching algorithm can “lie” as well. We recently learned that OKCupid deliberately changed people’s match percentages with other users in order to systematically study similarity and attraction. There’s probably good reason to assume that other online dating websites are conducting similar experiments. But don’t let this steer you away from online dating! You can still successfully use websites to meet people, but it’s probably wrong to expect that an 88% match is any better than a 73% match (or even a 42%).
In OKCupid’s study, they found that people were about as interested in partners they thought were highly compatible even if objectively they were not. The odds of a single message turning into a longer conversation were nearly identical for the dissimilar (17% chance) and similar (20% chance) users. In general, I would suggest not taking the matching programs too seriously on any dating website, because these algorithms are not supported by scientific evidence.5 A practical take-home message is that the match percentage you see with potential partners probably doesn’t mean all that much—simply the perception that people are similar is enough to make you feel attracted, regardless of actual similarity.
So whether you’re on OKCupid, Match.com, eHarmony, JDate, or other sites, don’t assume that a lower match % means you should avoid interacting with a potential partner, especially considering some of the incredibly random (yet perhaps highly entertaining) questions they have people complete (here’s a full list for OKCupid), which are not related to future relationship outcomes. If you like someone’s profile but they have a low match percentage, there’s no reason to hesitate sending them a (respectful) message—go for it!
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1Toma, C., Hancock, J. T., & Ellison, N.B. (2008). Separating fact from fiction: An examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1023-1036.
2Guenther, C. L., & Alicke, M. D. (2010). Deconstructing the better-than-average effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(5), 755-770. doi:10.1037/a0020959
3Bargh, J. A., McKenna, K. A., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (2002). Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the ‘true self’ on the Internet. Journal of Social Issues, 58(1), 33-48. doi:10.1111/1540-4560.00247
4McKenna, K. A., Green, A. S., & Gleason, M. J. (2002). Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction?. Journal of Social Issues, 58(1), 9-31. doi:10.1111/1540-4560.00246
5Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(1) 3–66.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.