"A salient issue for online romantic relationships is the possibility of deception, but it is unclear how lies are communicated before daters meet."

So begins the abstract of a research study that looked at solving the mystery of the kind of lying that goes on dating apps like Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, and the like.

You might think everyone is being deceitful all the time on dating apps ... but you'd be wrong. The truth is actually a bit more encouraging.

Researchers Jeffrey Hancock, a Stanford communications professor, and Dave Markowitz, assistant professor of communication at University of Oregon, analyzed over 3,000 messages sent by about 200 people on a variety of dating apps. They focused solely on the "discovery phase," meaning the time between when a match and when the two people actually meet in person.

Encouragingly, when researchers asked people how dishonest they'd been in each message, about 66 percent said they had been totally honest. And of those who had lied, only 7 percent of their messages contained untruths.

That means a full 93 percent of the messages were honest. So if we believe these participants, most people are telling the truth most of the time--even on dating apps.

But what about the times they aren't? According to the research, the vast majority of the actual lies told were "butler lies," a term Hanock coined in a previous research study. According to the researchers, the term refers to "false messages that help a person manage his or her social availability."  

In other words, they're the white lies people tell to make their way into something ... or weasel their way out. "Sorry, can't chat, got to go to bed now. Night!" -- when really you're going to scan Instagram for another half an hour (for example).

Here are the four most common kinds of butler lies people tell on dating apps:

1. Self-presentation lies (i.e. to make yourself look better)

This could mean exaggerating the truth to make yourself look cooler, or pretending to share interests with the other person ("omg I love salsa dancing, too!").

In one case, the message was: "Haha all I want is to walk into a grocery store and buy the entire shelf of Bold Rock." This lie was explained by the researchers as "exaggerating the desire to buy an entire shelf of hard cider and making the self appear witty or interesting."

2. Getting out of meeting up

Just under 30 percent of the falsehoods had to do with time. Scheduling conflicts, having had "such an exhausting day" or needing to wait to meet up "until work dies down" all reside in this category.

The fact is, meeting a new person is stressful. Even if you're excited about them, it's not a comforting activity--it spikes your adrenaline (not to mention the stress of actually making it out of the house fully dressed). So the lie becomes "Uhhhh, work meeting ran long, can't make it" instead of, "I'd honestly just rather stay in and watch Netflix than meet a new person tonight."

3. Lies about timing

If you have actually managed to decide on a time and place to meet, there's still the possibility of lying about when you'll actually arrive. You're guilty of this butler lie if you've ever sent the chirpy text, "I'm 10 minutes away!" when you're still in your bathrobe, deciding what to wear. This kind of fib obviously isn't limited to dating, and is quite common.

4. To avoid directly rejecting someone

This was often paired with the lie getting out of meeting up. It sounds like "Oh man, really wish I could go!" Participants were hoping to soften the blow of a brush-off, and to preserve the connection. In the words of the authors, the idea here is to "save face for both communicators."

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For Markowitz, the biggest takeaway from the research isn't that most of us lie about the same things (although that does seem to be the case). Instead, he says, "It was encouraging to see this finding in a dating setting ... because it suggests that trust and honesty are still crucial social dynamics when people are communicating as strangers."

Trust and honesty are crucial in circumstances beyond just texting on Tinder. But it's nice to know that even in that environment, we all really do want to do right by one another. 

Happy hunting.

Published on: Nov 28, 2018