It’s kind of amazing, the amount of cognitive dissonance a person can muster while firing off a text that is 100 percent B.S., especially when it’s going to someone you may or may not be trying to date. Like that thing where you send a message about them to them, and then immediately follow up with “Oh, sorry, that wasn’t for you!” (Yes, it was.) Or when you add six unnecessary details to an explanation of why you need to reschedule, in the hopes that each one will make it a little more convincing.
No one believes these things when they’re on the receiving end, and yet when we’re the one doing the typing, we suddenly become convinced of our own skills as masters of deception. I’ve rolled my eyes at texts from both those genres, and I’ve also sent them— to men I was trying to impress and men I was trying to shake — earnestly believing, each time, that I was getting away with it.
Honestly, none of us are getting away with it. But the good news, coming from a surprisingly soothing study recently published in the Journal of Communication, is that when it comes to conversations on Tinder, Bumble, and the like, benign fibs like these make up the bulk of the lying that happens — and lying itself, it turns out, is actually pretty rare on dating apps.
For the study, researchers Jeffrey Hancock, a communications professor at Stanford, and Dave Markowitz, an incoming assistant professor of communication at the University of Oregon, collected more than 3,000 messages sent by roughly 200 people during the “discovery phase,” the time between when two people match and when they actually meet face-to-face. When they asked participants to rate how dishonest they’d been in each message, around two-thirds said they hadn’t told anything but the truth (which, yes, caveat, could have been a lie), and only 7 percent of messages overall were reported to contain any falsehoods.
The bulk of those lies the were what the authors called “butler lies,” a term coined by Hancock in a previous study. “Butler lies are false messages that help a person manage his or her social availability,” Markowitz explains. They’re the fibs used as a polite way in or out of a conversation, whether you’re trying to chat someone up or trying to let them down easy. Here, according to the study, are the most common ones.
To look better. More than a third of the deceptive messages involved what the researchers called “self-presentation lies.” In some cases, this meant pretending to have the same interests as whoever they were chatting with; in others, it just meant stretching the truth in a way that was supposed to make them seem cooler. In one example, the authors cited the message: “Haha all I want is to walk into a grocery store and buy the entire shelf of Bold Rock” (which was, they helpfully explained, “exaggerating the desire to buy an entire shelf of hard cider and making the self appear witty or interesting”).
To get out of meeting. On the other hand, just under 30 percent of lies were about the sender’s time (or lack thereof), a category the researchers further broke down into a few sub-groups. The first of those was lies told to avoid meeting face-to-face — things about schedule conflicts, exhausting days, not being able to commit to a date until things calmed down. Some people, it’s worth noting, made a reasonable effort to make their excuses seem at least somewhat real, whole others … did not. Looking at you, whoever wrote, “Well I have my finals on Wednesday and then I’m leaving on a vacation Thursday. So a couple weeks at least.”
To soften the blow of rejection. The second group was about how participants felt about the time-management lies they’d just told, typically to soften the impact of a brush-off — things along the lines of “I wish I could go.” This kind of lie, though, wasn’t always told entirely out of kindness; its other purpose, the authors explained, was to “save face for both communicators,” keeping open the possibility of meeting at some point down the road while minimizing future awkwardness.
To cover a timing mishap. The third category was a genre of text that doesn’t just apply to online dating: the “I’ll be there soon!” message sent by someone who will not, in fact, be there soon. One person’s opinion: This is among the most annoying, but also the one you kind of have to forgive — who among us has not, at some point, promised they were ten minutes away while still sitting on the bed in a towel?
To Markowitz, though, the study takeaway isn’t that we all tell the same lies — it’s that contrary to popular belief, dating apps are populated with at least somewhat decent humans. “The idea that most people were reportedly honest was not necessarily shocking,” he says. “It was encouraging to see this finding in a dating setting, however, because it suggests that trust and honesty are still crucial social dynamics when people are communicating as strangers.” Maybe the men of Bumble really are the dedicated fishermen they claim to be in their photos — which, actually, could be good or bad, depending how you look at it.