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The Narcissist as Liar and Con-man
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
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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
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
The findings are published in the February issue of the Journal of
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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
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"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
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