'Online Photos: Are We All Catfishing' Is Third Report In Pace University's Sex And Dating Study

Are We All 'Catfishing' When We Date Online?

Note: Huffington Post Gay Voices is a media sponsor for Pace University and ProofPilot's study, "How We Date, Have Sex, and Form Relationships Today." The following report focuses on "catfishing" and is from Tyrel Starks, assistant professor of Psychology at Pace University, and Julia Bassiri, a research assistant at Pace University.

Thank you, readers of The Huffington Post for participating in our study with ProofPilot called "How We Date, Have Sex, and Form Relationships Today."

Our main goal of researching this topic is to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes between the dating habits of the LGBTQ community and heterosexuals. The report below comes from data collected from the second week of our six-week study, and is entitled "Online Photos: Are We All Catfishing?"

When it comes to online dating, we seem to have developed a grand fear of being “catfished.” For those not familiar, if you go fishing for bass or walleye and you end up with a catfish, well, it’s a letdown. Thanks to the documentary "Catfish," and a "Catfish"-inspired MTV reality show, the metaphor now rings terrifyingly true in the online dating scene. You find that perfect profile, the message exchanges bite at your line, you think you’re reeling ‘em in, and then—turns out you’ve just courted a scaly, whiskered dud of a person. But the term “catfish” no longer just refers to a person intentionally deceiving a potential date into a relationship, no. The term “catfish” now includes anyone who misrepresents him or herself online, picture or otherwise.

Research suggests that said misrepresentation might manifest itself in our tendency to oversell ourselves online, but that this deception is typically of a subtle and self-enhancing (not malicious or cruel) nature. When truly hoping to meet someone face-to-face, for example, guys are more likely to add a few inches to their height, and women are likely to drop a few pounds in response to that (rather insensitively asked and disclosed) weight question. Most people, however, will not create an online persona that would make for a potentially tragic in-person meet up.

Speaking of self-presentation, if you plan to enter the online dating game, pictures matter. While we may be selfie-obsessed individuals today, these indulgent snapshots are offspring of the profile photo, a once (and still) venerated representation of one’s online identity. But how well do any of these publically posted and shared pictures match up with how we really look? If the how-to-take-the-best-selfie-ever scripts that now exist are any indication of how we like to present our most flattering selves for the fans, it’s no surprise that people are even more serious with this practice when trying to attract a mate online.

So, while most people tend to say that their pictures are accurate representations of themselves, research indicates that independent raters don’t always agree. One study recently found that straight women tend to post less accurate pictures of themselves than straight men; they might dig into the (old) archives for primo pictures, or have chose a professional, retouched stunner from the pile.

We asked our study participants about the pictures they put (or don’t put) online. Perhaps surprisingly, the guys in our sample (most of whom find guys sexually attractive) are the ones more likely to have posted pictures of themselves online, and are more likely to have asked a partner to share a picture. Meanwhile, our data shows that men and women (those who’ve responded thus far) are equally likely to have texted or emailed a picture of themselves to his or her person of interest. Lastly, unlike the other study’s findings that women are more likely to “touch up” their pictures than men, our sample of male responders is actually more likely than the ladies to have digitally enhanced or altered the photos they post.

So, how does all this sit with you? We want to know! While the study is no longer enrolling new participants, we will continue to follow the hundreds of people who’ve already signed up to see what’s happening (or not happening) in their sexual and dating lives. Next week, we’ll ask our participants about “turn-ons” and “turn-offs:” What parts of the body do they find most physically attractive? What are the worst things to say on a first date? Find out next week, right here, on Gay Voices.

Brym, R. J., & Lenton, R. L. (2001). Love Online: A Report on Digital Dating in Canada. Retrieved January 13, 2006, from

Caspie, A. & Gorsky, P. (2006). Online deception: Prevalence, motivation, and emotion.
CyberPsychology & Behavior, 9, 54–59.

Ellison, N., Heino, R., & Gibbs, J. (2006). Managing impressions online: Self-presentation processes in the online dating environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11 article 2. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue2/ellison.html

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.

Hancock, J.T. & Toma, C.T. (2009). Putting your best face forward: the accuracy of online dating photographs. Journal of Communication, 59, 367-386.
Humphreys, L. (2004). Photographs and the presentation of self through online dating services.
Paper presented at the National Communication Association, Chicago, IL. (as cited in Hancock & Toma, 2009)

Toma, C., Hancock, J. T., & Ellison, N. (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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