Online Dating

Dr. Zelig | Online Dating

On Line Dating
Safety Practices, Statistics, and Tips for Success
Questions and Answers
Copyright 2008-2012, Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP

The following handout was distributed during a workshop that Dr. Zelig presented entitled, “Online dating: Red Flags for Domestic Violence Survivors, September 18, 2008, at the Fifth Annual Utah Domestic Violence Council Conference in Salt Lake City.  Although it was developed for therapists working with domestic violence victims, the information has been adapted to question and answer format, and may be useful for anyone desiring to use online dating services more safely and effectively.

1.    How many people are single, and how many adults use online services for dating?

a.    44% of adults are single.  For every 86 unmarried men, there are 100 single women.

2.    Where are all these single people?

a.    Washington, DC, where 70% of adult population is single – is the best hunting ground.  The worst place – where only 41% of the adults are single – is Utah.   Such statistics, of course, have become less important because online dating services have leveled the playing field to some degree.

3.    How many people use online dating services, and which sites are the most popular?

a.    Approximately 40% of all single adults use online services.

b.    Top 10 online services as of July 28, 2008:

Site                                   Total visits (in millions
Plenty of Fish                   36,825
Singlesnet                       29,896
eHarmony                       19,269                       18,329
Yahoo! Personals              16,365
People Media Sites            12,340                         10,716
SparkNetworks                    9,124                         4,847

Note: Only does some degree of background checking.

4.    Everyone seems to have an opinion on the best way to turn an online conversation into an in-person meeting.  This is risky.  I have never met him!

a.    If you cannot tolerate any risk, then don’t date anyone!  There is always some risk, no matter where you meet someone or how long you have known them.

5.    OK, but how can I minimize the risk when I choose to meet someone I have never met in person?

a.    The initial meetings should always be in a public place, with each party arriving separately.

b.    If the relationship rises to the next level and you are willing to meet in a private place or ride as a passenger in their vehicle, telephone another person and give your location and the name of you date in their presence.

c.    Consider purchasing a disposable cellular phone solely for online dating. Give this number to those whom you consider candidates.  If someone keeps bothering you, discard the phone or give it to someone whom you don’t like.

6.    How can I tell if she is lying?

a.    First, let’s be frank about your limitations:  Most people greatly overestimate their ability to detect deception. A false feedback loop leads to overestimating one’s ability to detect deception: You only get feedback on those whom you detect.  If someone is good enough at fooling you, you might never know it.

b.    When the ability to detect deception is studied in psychological laboratories, subjects typically perform at chance or slightly above chance level.  So while most of us are not very good lie detectors, knowing some facts about deception may give you an edge:

i.    The people who are most accurate at detecting deception are sensitive to nonverbal cues – the most common channel in which the deceiver “leaks” their true intent.

ii.    One of the most important factors in being deceived is your willingness to be deceived.  If you meet another person in a state of neediness, you are particularly vulnerable to having the wool pulled over your eyes.  And to make matters worse, the more needy one appears the less attractive they are to others!  If you are bleeding, don’t date!

iii.    If your date tells you they are dishonest believe them! For example, if you have a hard time recognizing your prospect on your first meeting because their picture is a gross misrepresentation, you have just received instant confirmation they are dishonest. In such case, consider making the initial meeting the last meeting.

iv.    These findings are not a reason to ignore “gut” level apprehension or fear.  If someone “creeps you out” pay attention to it!  However, you should also be cautious even when you feel comfortable with the other person.

7.    Is there a difference between people who want to meet in person after a few emails or phone calls versus those who prefer a long period of extended communication?

a.    Yes, research indicates that those who desire in-person meetings fairly soon after conversing online tend to be more honest than those who want to defer meeting the person (Gibbs, Ellison, & Heino, 2006).

8.    So what do people lie about the most on their social profiles?

a.    Regarding the profiles presented online, one study found that over 80% online people misrepresented themselves.

b.    Examining the practices of 80 online daters, researchers found that the deception was relatively minor – and predictable:

i.    Height was listed as 2% taller than actual – men were the main offenders on height.

ii.    Weight was 5.5% lower that actual – women were most likely to be deceptive in this area.

iii.    Age 1.4% lower than actual age.  (Toma, Handcock, & Ellison, 2008).

9.    How can I increase the appeal of my profile to the types of people I would like to meet?

a.    One of the most common findings in the science of interpersonal attraction — which applies to both our selection of friends and romantic partners – is that the more similar someone perceives you as being like them, the more likely they are to be attracted to you.  This has implications for profile design:

i.    Write short profiles.

(1)    The longer the profile, the greater likelihood that one’s potential suitor will detect dissimilarity.  This perception triggers greater scrutiny for differences, causing a cascade of disaffection for the profile.

(2)    The above is not offered to encourage deceptively short profiles.  Instead, it is simply acknowledging that people are more likely to connect when they perceive similarity. After this perception is established, the revelation of differences is more likely to be viewed in an objective manner.

10.    How can I increase the attractiveness of my profile?

a.    The profile should be positive.  Avoid publishing a shopping list of all the traits you don’t like.  Spare war stories of previous dates.   Don’t vent on line! This does not attract healthy partners.  Moreover, revealing your wounds makes it easier to manipulate you (See 11b, below).

b.    My colleagues who treat sex offenders consistently report their clients, when offending, had a preference for religiously-based sites, apparently viewing women subscribers as more naive and vulnerable.  While this concern is based on anecdotal reports and has not been verified or disproved by any type of scientific study, it underscores the possibility that many predators can be found on the same sites as solid people (e.g., working professionals with limited discretionary time).

11.    Any other suggestions to increase my safety and enjoyment of online dating?

a.    Women should not post pictures of their children on their profile.  This helps insure that her potential suitor is sexually attracted to her rather than her children.

b.    There is another good reason for not cataloging all that you don’t want in a partner: Why provide information that will help them manipulate you?  Wise online daters refrain from such practice because they would rather give their date ample rope to hang themselves. Once hung, they can thank their date for helping them dodge a bullet.  For example, if one announces they don’t want to date “control freaks” the control freak you meet on  your first date will be sure to minimize clues of this trait until they feel they have garnered enough control to let their true colors shine.

c.    NO online picture NO date!  Sometimes people in high profile or safety sensitive positions (like police officers or public figures) don’t post their picture.  However, for every one of these exceptions, there is a larger number of people who are married or don’t want to rattle their probation officer.

d.    Beware of a person who claims they do not drink.  Unless there is a religious reason for abstinence, this person may have a history of current or past alcohol abuse.


Gibbs, J. L., Ellison, N. B., & Heino, R. D. (2006). Self-presentation in online personals: The role of anticipated future interaction, self disclosure, and perceived success in Internet dating. Communication Research, 33,1-26.

Toma, C. L., Hancock, J. T., & Ellison, N. B. (2008).  Separating fact from fiction: An examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1023-1036.

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