Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Lovelorn Liars Leave Linguistic Leads
Online daters intent on fudging their personal information have a big advantage: most people are terrible at identifying a liar. But new research is turning the tables on deceivers using their own words.
“Generally, people don’t want to admit they’ve lied,” says Catalina Toma, communication science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “But we don’t have to rely on the liars to tell us about their lies. We can read their handiwork.”
Using personal descriptions written for Internet dating profiles, Toma and Jeffrey Hancock, communication professor at Cornell University, have identified clues as to whether the author was being deceptive.
The researchers 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 published in the February issue of the Journal of Communication revealed patterns in the liars’ writing.
The more deceptive a dater’s profile, the less likely they were to use the first-person pronoun “I.”
“Liars do this because they want to distance themselves from their deceptive statements,” Toma says.
The liars often employed negation, a flip of the 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 says. “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. Daters who had lied about their age, height or weight or had included a photo the researchers found to be less than representative of reality, were likely to avoid discussing their appearance in their written descriptions, choosing instead to talk about work or life achievements.