The Skinny on Online Dating: Psychology at work

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In Meg Jay’s book The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter—and how to make the most of them now, she makes a point that online dating is a good idea, because it matches people based on personality traits-something that predicts long-term relationship success. In real life, relationships may form because two people happen to be at the same bar, or have a mutual friend. But research has shown time and time again that similarity attracts.1,2 Given the way online dating sites work, by matching people based on compatibility of personality and preferences, it is not surprising that more than a third of marriages now start online. And, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report on online dating, 38% of single American adults looking for a partner have used online dating sites or apps. Of Americans who found their spouse online, they report higher marital satisfaction and lower divorce rates than couples that met IRL.3

With the current popularity of apps like Tinder and sites like OkCupid, it’s impossible to ignore the psychological field experiment that is online dating. There are 3 areas of psychology research that are incredibly relevant to online dating: Personality, self-presentation and deception.

Personality– Many online dating sites require users to fill out a battery of questions, several of which are focused on personality characteristics. A question, “Do you like wild parties?” appears in OkCupid’s personality questionnaire, which psychologists may recognize as a version of the sensation-seeking personality item “I like wild parties.”4 In addition to direct adaptations of established personality questionnaires, questions ask about cleanliness and keeping promises (conscientiousness), new experiences and adventurousness (openness to experience), if you would do things just because your partner wanted to (agreeableness), if you like to talk or meet new people (extraversion) and if you get jealous and worried about things you can’t change (neuroticism). As you can see, and as Meg Jay suggested, these sites evaluate users largely based on what is known as the Big 5 of personality.5,6 Research has found that romantic attachment styles relate to the Big 5, and various personality traits correlate with specific relationship outcomes, like neuroticism and decreased relationship satisfaction.7,8

Self-presentation– With the high stakes of finding a meaningful relationship, online dating users may choose to engage in self-presentation: the practice of managing the impressions we make on others.9 Research suggests that self-presentation motives may be especially salient because creating online content gives people an opportunity to overtly self-promote.10 Evidence suggests that it may be easier to self-present in a positive light than one may think. Being seen as socially expressive, presenting an ideal self, engaging in self-disclosure and “matching your profile” when meeting in person can all contribute to self-presentational success.11,12,13,14 Self-presentation concerns stay consistent throughout the lifespan, with aging men still preferring youth and physical attractiveness, and leveraging information about status on their own online dating profiles.15

Deception– Sometimes self-presentation goes beyond a favorable description of the self, and veers toward untruthfulness. Studies by Toma and Hancock found that people who were rated lower in attractiveness by independent raters were more likely to lie about physical descriptions, and use an “enhanced” profile picture.16 Another study by the same group of researchers found that women were more likely to use deceptive pictures than men, using younger pictures, or pictures taken by a professional, among other tactics; but that only about 1/3 of profile pictures were rated as inaccurate.17 Yet another study found that men were more likely to post deceptive information about financial assets, relationship goals and their own interests and attributes, and women were more likely to post misleading information about their weight.18

While the increasing popularity of online dating indicates it may be the way of the future, the psychological principles behind it are time-tested and peer-approved.

Our area head, Dr. Mark Leary, is one of the foremost experts on self-presentation. You can find his self-presentation-related Google Scholar results here.

  1. Byrne, D. (1961). Interpersonal attraction and attitude similarity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62(3), 713-715.
  1. Byrne, D. & Griffitt, W. (1969). Similarity and awareness of similarity of personality characteristics as determinants of attraction. Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 3(3), 179-186.
  1. Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G. C., Ogburn, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A, 110(25), 10135-10140.
  1. Hoyle, R. H., Stephenson, M. T., Palmgreen, P., Pugles Lorch, E., Donohew, R. L. (2002). Reliability and validity of a brief measure of sensation seeking. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 401-414.
  1. Goldberg, L. R. (1990). An alternative “Description of Personality”: The big-five factor structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(6), 1216-1229.
  1. Gosling, S. D., Rentfrow, P. J., & Swann Jr, W. B. (2003). A very brief measure of the Big-Five personality domains. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 504-528.
  1. Shaver, P. R. & Brennan, K. A. (1992). Attachment styles and the “Big Five” personality traits: Their connections with each other and with romantic relationships outcomes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(5), 536-545.
  1. White, J. K., Hendrick, S. S., & Hendrick, C. (2004). Big five personality variables and relationships constructs. Personality and Individual Differences, 37(7), 1519-1530.
  1. Leary, M. R. & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). Impression management: A literature review and a two-component model. Psychological Bulletin, 107(1), 34-47.
  1. Schau, H. J. & Gilly, M. C. (2003). We are what we post? Self-presentation in personal web space. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(3), 385-404.
  1. Weisbuch, M., Ivcevic, Z., & Ambady, N. (2009). On being liked on the web and in the “real world”: Consistency in first impressions across personal webpages and spontaneous behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(3), 573-576.
  1. Ellison, N. B., Heino, R. D., & Gibbs, J. L. (2006). Managing impressions online: Self-presentation processes in the online dating environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2), 415-441.
  1. Gibbs, J. L., Ellison, N. B., & Heino, R. D. (2006). Self-presentation in online personals: The role of anticipated future interaction, self-disclosure, and perceived success in internet dating. Communication Research, 33(2), 152-177.
  1. Whitty, M. T. (2008). Revealing the ‘real’ me, searching for the ‘actual’ you: Presentations of self on an internet dating site. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(4), 1707-1723.
  1. Alterovitz, S. S. R. & Mendelsohn, G. A. (2009). Partner preferences across the life span: Online dating by older adults. Psychology and Aging, 24(2), 513-517.
  1. Toma, C. L. & Hancock, J. T. (2010). Looks and lies: The role of physical attractiveness in online dating self-presentation and deception. Communication Research, 37(3), 335-351.
  1. Hancock, J. T. & Toma, C. L. (2009). Putting your best face forward: The accuracy of online dating photographs. Journal of Communication, 59, 367-386.
  1. Hall, J. A., Park, N., Song, H., & Cody, M. J. (2010). Strategic misrepresentation in online dating: The effects of gender, self-monitoring, and personality traits. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(1), 117-135.

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