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Liars may be identifiable through their writings, too

Feb. 13, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison 
and World Science staff

Much as been said and writ­ten about spot­ting li­ars through their eye move­ments and body lan­guage. But through their writ­ing?

That can be done too: li­ars on In­ter­net dat­ing sites may be de­tect­a­ble through their typ­ings al­most two-thirds of the time, new re­search sug­gests. The find­ings have come out just in time for Valen­tine’s Day, as on­line daters are try­ing to avoid po­ten­tial prospects who are fudg­ing their his­to­ry, height or oth­er var­iables.

“We don’t have to rely on the li­ars to tell us about their lies. We can read their hand­i­work,” said re­searcher Catalina Toma of the Uni­vers­ity of Wis­con­sin–Madi­son.

Work­ing with Jef­frey Han­cock of Cor­nell Uni­vers­ity in New York, Toma com­pared the ac­tu­al height, weight and age of 78 on­line daters to their pro­file in­forma­t­ion and pho­tos on four match­mak­ing web­sites.

It turned out that for one thing, the more de­cep­tive a dater’s pro­file, the less likely the writer was to use the word “I.” “Liars do this be­cause they want to dis­tance them­selves from their de­cep­tive state­ments,” Toma said.

Liars of­ten em­ployed nega­t­ion, a flip of lan­guage that would re­state “hap­py” as “not sad” or “ex­cit­ing” as “not bor­ing.” And the fab­ri­ca­tors tended to write shorter self-descriptions in their pro­files — a hedge, Toma ex­pects, against weav­ing a more tan­gled web of de­cep­tion. “They don’t want to say too much,” Toma said. “Liars ex­pe­ri­ence a lot of cog­ni­tive load. They have a lot to think about. They less they write, the few­er un­true things they may have to re­mem­ber and sup­port lat­er.”

Liars were al­so care­ful to skirt their own de­cep­tion: for in­stance, those who mis­led read­ers about appearance-related fac­tors al­so tended to avoid writ­ing much about their looks, choos­ing to spot­light oth­er traits in­stead.

The find­ings are pub­lished in the Feb­ru­ary is­sue of the Jour­nal of Com­mu­nica­t­ion.

The toolkit of lan­guage clues gave the re­search­ers a dis­tinct ad­van­tage when they re-examined their pool of 78 on­line daters, they said. “The more de­cep­tive the self-description, the few­er times you see ‘I,’ the more nega­t­ion, the few­er words to­tal — us­ing those in­di­ca­tors, we were able to cor­rectly iden­ti­fy the li­ars about 65 per­cent of the time,” Toma re­marked.

How big of an im­prove­ment is that over an un­trained per­son try­ing to spot the li­ars? Quite large, Toma and Han­cock found. A sec­ond part of their study re­vealed that un­trained vol­un­teers were quite un­able to re­liably spot li­ars in on­line pro­files. “They might as well have flipped a coin,” Toma said.

The pair al­so found that four in five on­line pro­files strayed from the truth at least a lit­tle. “Al­most everybody lied about some­thing, but the mag­ni­tude was of­ten smal­l,” Toma said. Weight was the most fre­quent trans­gres­sion, with wom­en off by an av­er­age of 8.5 pounds and men by 1.5. Half lied about their height, and nearly one in five changed their age.

Stud­y­ing ly­ing through on­line com­mu­nica­t­ion such as dat­ing pro­files opens a door on a me­di­um in which the li­ar has more room to ma­neu­ver, Toma said. “On­line dat­ing is dif­fer­ent. It’s not a tra­di­tion­al in­ter­ac­tion,” she not­ed. The back-and-forth of an in-per­son con­versa­t­ion is mis­sing, giv­ing a li­ar the op­por­tun­ity to re­spond at their lei­sure or not at all. And it’s ed­ita­ble, so “you can write and re­write as many times as you want be­fore you post, and then in many cases re­turn and ed­it your­self.”

Toma said the find­ings aren’t out of line with what’s known about li­ars in face-to-face situa­t­ions. “It’s not like a de­cep­tive on­line pro­file is a new beast, and that helps us apply what we can learn to all man­ners of com­mu­nica­t­ion.”

“Some­day there may be soft­ware to tell you how likely it is that the cute per­son whose pro­file you’re look­ing at is ly­ing to you, or even that some­one is be­ing de­cep­tive in an e-mail,” she added. “But that may take a while.”


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Much as been said and written about spotting liars through their eye movements and body language. But through their writing? That can be done too: liars on Internet dating sites may be detectable through their typings almost two-thirds of the time, new research suggests. The findings have come out just in time for Valentine’s Day, as online daters are trying to avoid potential prospects who are fudging their history, height or other facts. “We don’t have to rely on the liars to tell us about their lies. We can read their handiwork,” said researcher Catalina Toma of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Working with Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University in New York, Toma compared the actual height, weight and age of 78 online daters to their profile information and photos on four matchmaking websites. A linguistic analysis of the group’s written self-descriptions pointed to patterns in the liars’ writing. For one thing, the more deceptive a dater’s profile, the less likely they were to use the word “I.” “Liars do this because they want to distance themselves from their deceptive statements,” Toma said. Liars often employed negation, a flip of language that would restate “happy” as “not sad” or “exciting” as “not boring.” And the fabricators tended to write shorter self-descriptions in their profiles — a hedge, Toma expects, against weaving a more tangled web of deception. “They don’t want to say too much,” Toma said. “Liars experience a lot of cognitive load. They have a lot to think about. They less they write, the fewer untrue things they may have to remember and support later.” Liars were also careful to skirt their own deception: for instance, those who misled readers about appearance-related factors also tended to avoid writing much about their looks, choosing to spotlight other traits instead. The findings are published in the February issue of the Journal of Communication. The toolkit of language clues gave the researchers a distinct advantage when they re-examined their pool of 78 online daters, they said. “The more deceptive the self-description, the fewer times you see ‘I,’ the more negation, the fewer words total — using those indicators, we were able to correctly identify the liars about 65 percent of the time,” Toma remarked. How big of an improvement is that over an untrained person trying to spot the liars? Quite large, Toma and Hancock found. A second part of their study revealed that untrained volunteers were quite unable to reliably spot liars in online profiles. “They might as well have flipped a coin,” Toma said. The pair also found that four in five online profiles strayed from the truth at least a little. “Almost everybody lied about something, but the magnitude was often small,” Toma said. Weight was the most frequent transgression, with women off by an average of 8.5 pounds and men by 1.5. Half lied about their height, and nearly one in five changed their age. Studying lying through online communication such as dating profiles opens a door on a medium in which the liar has more room to maneuver, Toma said. “Online dating is different. It’s not a traditional interaction,” she noted. The back-and-forth of an in-person conversation is missing, giving a liar the opportunity to respond at their leisure or not at all. And it’s editable, so “you can write and rewrite as many times as you want before you post, and then in many cases return and edit yourself.” Toma said the findings aren’t out of line with what’s known about liars in face-to-face situations. “It’s not like a deceptive online profile is a new beast, and that helps us apply what we can learn to all manners of communication.” “Someday there may be software to tell you how likely it is that the cute person whose profile you’re looking at is lying to you, or even that someone is being deceptive in an e-mail,” she added. “But that may take a while.”