THURSDAY, March 11 (HealthDay News) -- For the millions looking for love on the Internet, the nagging question remains: Is my virtual paramour the person they say they are?
A new survey of more than 5,000 U.S. online daters finds that the answer to that question is -- by and large -- 'yes,' or at least as honest as they would be in face-to-face dating.
The study also found that when fibs do occur, men and women appear equally guilty.
"The concerns people have when dating online are very similar to the ones they have in their face-to-face lives. And we found that dating behavior is very similar as well," said study author Jeffrey Hall, an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
The study appears in the March 8 issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
The new study comes on the heels of recent work by German and U.S. researchers indicating that users of friendship-oriented social networking sites, such as Facebook, offer up realistic self portraits when posting online profiles.
But is this true for the online dating world, where the emotional stakes are higher?
To find out, Hall and his team administered an online survey in 2007 to more than 5,000 American adults -- all patrons of a "large [unnamed] online dating site".
Participants averaged 40 years of age, more than 80 percent were white, and nearly three-quarters were women. More than half said they were single and had never been married, while just over 40 percent said they were divorced. A little over two-thirds said they were not currently involved in a romantic relationship.
After collecting demographic information, the participants were asked how likely they would be to misrepresent themselves online with respect to their personal attributes, relationship goals, personal interests, personal assets, and/or past relationships.
The researchers also ranked participants in terms of how neurotic, extroverted, conscientious, agreeable, and/or open they were, based on certain personality traits.
The online daters also completed a questionnaire to assess to what degree they were capable of putting on a "social performance" and/or altering their behavior during face-to-face meetings, simply to suit particular people and changing circumstances.
As a whole, those who indulged in such behaviors -- generally driven by an interest in being liked, fitting in, and/or looking good -- were characterized as "self-monitors" -- people who are predisposed to stage-manage the impressions they make on others.
According to the study, patrons of the online dating site were no more or less likely to lie about themselves than people who find dates the old-fashioned way via work, recreation or friends.
It was an individual's personality that seemed to determine whether they would lie or bend the truth in the virtual world.
For example, being "adventurous" and "open" to new experiences lowered the likelihood of lying online, presumably because such individuals felt they were interesting enough to begin with.
On the other hand, while extroverts were less likely than introverts to misrepresent their personal interests, they were more likely to lie about their prior relationship history online. The authors speculated that this could be a function of extroverts having had a more "active" past then their introverted colleagues -- a fact they might prefer not to highlight.
People who tended to shift their behavior to create more favorable impressions in "real-world" meetings -- so-called "high self-monitors"-- were most likely to try to deceive others online, the team found.
"So when these kind of people are online and looking to date they're going to make their pictures better and their profile more exciting," noted Hall. "By comparison, low self-monitors are going to present themselves exactly as they are in all circumstance -- in person and online."
Being a neurotic personality seemed to have no bearing one way or the other on honesty in online dating, the team found.
Demographics also played a role in online deception. Not surprisingly, older online daters were more likely to lie about their age than younger daters, and men were more likely to shave years off their age than women.
Overall, however, "we found that the differences between men and women online were very small," Hall stressed.
"Yes, we did find that women were more likely to misrepresent their weight," he added. "And men were more likely to misrepresent their personal interests, and more likely to misrepresent personal assets like job and money and personal attributes, like how nice and polite they are. But these latter differences were really very small."
Hall stressed, however, that levels of online deception might change depending on the context.
"The survey was about people more interested in establishing a single romantic relationship," he noted. "But there are sites that are exclusively dedicated to the hook-up -- the short-term, casual sex experience. And in that case, you don't really need to present yourself in a fully authentic way, because the purpose is just to enjoy yourself in a one-night stand. And a survey of that kind of online group might find very different results."
Eli Finkel, an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said the study results came as little surprise.
"These findings lend empirical validation to my longstanding assumption that the typical person using modern dating approaches doesn't differ much from the typical person using traditional dating approaches," he said.
"There was probably a time when people using dating services were different in important ways from the general dating population," added Finkel, "but that seems to be less and less true as modern dating approaches become increasingly popular. Online daters, speed-daters, and the like seem to be just like the rest of us in most ways. That this intuition extends to truth-telling among online daters is important validation of that general point."
There's more on social networking at the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.