Enter the maze

Pulling a face

Two people leaning in for a kiss

How close is your online self to your real self? When you tell people about yourself online, on social networking sites like Facebook, you’ve got the luxury of being able to edit your life a bit. You can choose the profile picture you look best in, and you can write status updates that make you seem as interesting, funny and exciting as possible. Wanting to present yourself in the best light is pretty natural, and all of us do it at least a little bit. Even we here at cs4fn aren’t immune. For example, right now we’re tempted to look clever by pointing out that there’s a line from Shakespeare about this – “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another”. But when does this impulse go too far? Is there a line where a little self- editing becomes more like lying?

Do you match up?

One place where this question becomes important is on online dating sites. On the one hand, everyone is there to get dates, so it’s important to make yourself look as good as possible. On the other hand, if you do find a date you’re going to meet each other in person. That means any big differences between your profile and the real-life you will be rumbled. There are good reasons to lie, and other good reasons to tell the truth. When researchers find a situation like this – where there are big incentives to do two completely opposite things – they know they’ve found a gold mine. Jeffery Hancock and Catalina Toma, two sociologists from Cornell University in the USA, wanted to see what people eventually choose to do, so they decided to find out whether people’s online dating profile pictures matched their real-life appearance. To do it they needed to get some people round to their place. Well, their lab anyway.

Here’s what the researchers did: they found some people with dating profiles online, who all agreed to visit a psychology lab in New York City. When the test subjects got there they were shown their own profile from a dating website, and asked to say how accurate they thought their own profile picture was. Then they had a second picture taken in the lab, in the same pose as their online photo. Later on, independent judges, who had never met the volunteers, compared the two photos and rated the accuracy of the online version. What they found was: people are tricky.

Rate my date

When the volunteers were asked to rate the accuracy of their own profile photos, they tended to say the photos were very accurate. The independent judges didn’t agree. The average score was closer to ‘barely accurate’. Almost a third of the pictures were found to be downright inaccurate. There were differences between the genders, too: women tended to have more inaccurate pictures than men (possibly because they face more social pressure about their appearance), and the judges tended to see different inaccuracies in men’s and women’s photos. The differences that made judges think women’s photos were inaccurate were related to their hair, their weight and (oddly) their teeth, but judges took notice when men’s online photos made them look younger or less bald.

So when faced with a dilemma between looking more attractive and being more true-to-life, it seems people are more likely to choose attractiveness. But when does good presentation become fakeness? For that matter, when does being true-to- life become, well, just sloppy? The more you think about this, the more you realise just how fine a line it can be, and it seems harder to judge the people who try and make themselves look hotter online than they are in real life. On the other hand, this experiment seems to say that even if the line is fine, it does exist, and you can be caught out if you try and push the fib too far.