Everybody lies

Millions of Americans will look for love online this Valentine’s Day. Most will be deceived or tricked.

V-Day surprise! Your date may not look like you thought.

V-Day surprise! Your date may not look like you thought.

Illustration by Mark Stivers

When Anthony Zimmer’s online date showed up to his Sacramento home, there was one major problem: She looked nothing like her picture. He described the woman in the photos as in her 20s, attractive, youthful, energetic. But the woman who ended up driving to meet Zimmer came all the way from Reno, appeared to be in her 40s, wasn’t too attractive—sunken cheeks, dirty nails—and appeared to be on drugs, possibly methamphetamine.

“Who the hell are you?” said Zimmer, a 21-year-old who dates on Plentyoffish.

“I have a confession to make: That’s not me,” she admitted. Turns out, his online date had sent pictures of her hot sister in a desperate attempt to get an invitation to meet up with him.

Apparently, this sort of online ruse happens all the time. According to a recent article in Scientific American, a study conducted by researchers at Boston University and MIT estimate that 90 percent of people lie when Internet dating. Nine out of 10 people!

“They want to appear as attractive as possible, and deception is one tool,” explains Jeffrey Hancock, associate professor and co-director of cognitive science at Cornell University in New York. He’s been conducting online-dating studies since 2006 and is currently writing about language deception. He notes that, as in Zimmer’s case, an online dater sending a picture of someone else is actually kind of rare.

“They’re typically not that deceptive,” Hancock says of fake photos. “When that happens … it’s an absolute deal breaker.”

It’s much more common, he says, for men to stretch the truth about their height and women to be misleading about their weight. Men on average round their height up by an inch—not quite NBA embellishment—but “we’ve seen where people lie 3 inches,” Hancock explains.

“As soon as they meet the girl, it’s game over.” (Perhaps, if the dater never stands up, he just may get away with it.)

There are surefire ways to know someone is lying prior to meeting. One, according to Hancock, is to pay attention to their topics of conversation. Daters that are overweight tend to avoid topics about food or diet, while daters that are lying about their jobs avoid talking about their career.

Daters, of course, want to make themselves as appealing as possible. And embellishments abound. Hancock says one way they do this is by being misleading about their current lifestyle activities. “People would say, ‘I love hiking,’ but hadn’t hiked for 10 years,” he noted of his studies. “They were true [stories] and interesting to them. [But] people draw on their past self. It’s like a library.”

Psychological distancing is another deceptive mechanism. They will decrease self-references, such as “I, me and myself,” and have an increase in negations, such as “no, not, never.”

“ Hey baby, is that really your chin?” “ For sure, girl. And those lips?”

Illustration by Mark Stivers

An example would be when a cheating man advises “never cheat”; typically, one would normally say “I have never cheated on my wife.”

“When you lie, you tend to usually feel guilty about it,” Hancock reminds. ”You want to distance yourself from the statement by not using the things that refer to self. If they’re not referring to themselves at all, that’s a cue.”

And while, again, most people use their own photo, Hancock says daters often choose photos that don’t always truly represent who they are. “They are strategic,” he says. “‘I’m on a beautiful mountaintop with the sunset.’ People take advantage of that.”

In our failed dater Zimmer’s experience, when women have pictures of just their face, they are typically overweight. “If [women] showed any pictures of their body, it’d be [to show] how big their boobs are,” Zimmer says.

Hancock argues that online daters often will use old photographs in order to present a past self during a more attractive phase in their life. “That’s putting their best face forward, which is usually a younger face,” he says, noting that women use this tactic more than men because men are typically more attracted to youthfulness.

He also explained that there’s a so-called “foggy mirror” theory: Some people don’t know how they appear to others. This means that people see themselves in a certain way and don’t realize they’re lying. “We see ourselves through a mirror that we see ourselves as better than average,” he explains.

Plus, online dating profiles are composed under asynchronous conditions, which means liars have ample opportunity to control their “non-live” messages. “When you can sit and write things on your own time, rather than a chat room, you can edit and take your time; you have advantages,” Hancock says.

So, the lesson to take home is to use better judgment and good sense when online dating. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Hancock urges to be on guard and on the lookout for online-dating liars.

“If you see any alarms going off, pay attention,” he advises. “Does it all seem to add up?”

As for Zimmer, the Sacramentan says he is much more cautious now due to the fake-picture experience. And he urges that it never hurts to take precautions when dating.

“I never invite anyone over unless I have met them first,” he says. “I must meet in a public area, and I never have a dinner date—because if that situation happens again, I don’t want to waste my money.”

Zimmer’s last dating experience was actually a good one. First off, when she showed up, it was the woman in the picture, and she “was not psycho,” he laughs. The two dated for a month and became friends.

“I was relieved to have met someone normal for a change, and that has given me more hope that there might be another normal person out there for me.”

And in the world of online dating, normalcy is a good thing.