How Much Lying Do You Expect... or Do... Online?

October 2nd, 2014 by 

Hey, internet.  I'm 6'0" tall.

When You're Online, You Can Expect Lying... But Where?

Okay, that's a lie.  Your author is 5'10" tall when measured with a tape measure at roughly midday when standing on a tile floor in thin cotton socks.  But... let me back up and approach this from a further distance.

Scene from Arthur

I Still Can't Believe It Myself! (PBS)

Last week, my co-writer Cameron was in town to attend my one year old daughter's birthday. (While we were drinking) He mentioned to me that he thought I was "stat frauding" by reporting my height as 5'10"... and felt I was rounding up a measure in the mid-to-upper 5'9" range.  And, in a way, we're both right - vertebral compression alone can make heights vary up to an inch a day (and 3 inches for astronauts on extended missions!).  Tack on compression of the arches in your feet and shifting posture and variations in the strength and activity of your core muscles, and your height is a lot more fluid than the statistics on your license tends to suggest.

Okay, so you agree - my height is 5'10" +/- 0.5" depending on the time of day I measure, and the status of my body and posture at the time.  And yes, my driver's license says 5'10".  The horror... alert the DMV!

But, what if I told you that most people an inch shorter than me up to an inch taller than me actually vary more than what can be easily explained by sagging arches and compressed vertebrae?

Well, not really - but they report they do.  That's right - believe it or not, people lie on the internet.

People Tell Lies on the Internet?

Yes, it's true - and lying on the internet is a very interesting phenomenon... well, from every perspective.  As a male, I can point out all the areas where other males "stat fraud" all the time - waist size (lower), chest/bicep size (larger), weights of various lifts (higher), salary

Credit to OKCupid for the Excellent Study

Credit to OKCupid for the Excellent Study

(higher), investment success (way higher), golf score (lower), weight (lower - unless they lift, then higher).  We see that on various websites as well - people lie about the amount of money their site is grossing, the number of page views they get a day, the number of followers they claim, and, well, anything that isn't easy to verify.

One of the most interesting places research has been done on online stat frauding is... surprise, surprise... on online dating sites.  When thinking about this article, I came across two excellent studies from the genre, one from the American site OKCupid, and another from the site AYI.com.  Their conclusion: males lie about their heights in their online dating profiles... to the tune of about 2 inches.

Furthermore, as you can see in the nearby image, the distribution of heights has a strange flattening at 5'8".  The explanation is obvious - starting at around 5'8", men like to tack on extra inches to hit the psychologically powerful height of 6'0".  That OKCupid study is particularly fascinating as there is actually a reverse effect in women... as women approach 5'10", they are more likely to round their heights down.  And, yes, as you probably expect - people tend to inflate their salaries significantly, especially to claim the key psychological barrier of $100,000 a year.  (Imagine if you paid taxes on your OKCupid claimed salary - do you think that would send it in the opposite direction?)

Where Are People Most Likely to Lie?

Last week we talked about Innumeracy and the inability of some people to critically think math-related statements through.  Equally fascinating is when and where people will use deliberately false numbers... basically, where the numbers claimed are hard to verify.  I mean, by the time the shoes are off and you're in a position to catch an online dating stat frauder on a height lie, it's usually a bit too late...

But, there are a few things we can... somewhat safely... assume by the information as presented:

  1. People tend to make small lies - for example, on the order of 1.5%-6% on their heights.
  2. Lies increase around important psychological barriers - 6'0" is a big one for the US... but do you think people who are 1.7272 meters tall claim to be 1.8288 meters tall?
  3. Lies are most likely where numbers are hard to verify - or when it's too late to turn back when they are verified!
Men: Measure first thing in the morning with Vibram Wedge Sole Boots!

Author's Note: Vibram Wedge Soled Boots are good for stat frauding.

You'll see that around any round numbers - everyone makes at least $100,000 a year, everyone 5'8" to 5'11.9" is 6'0" tall, and everyone in the liquor store is 21 years old (tip: don't say you're 21.).  Perhaps that has something to do with the human round number bias - if you think about it, there is a rational basis for this frauding - 6'0" males do fly through online dating screens easier than our 5'8" brothers... but 5'10" folks self-reporting as 6'0" get through the same filter as the legitimate, non-lying 6'0" person (although who knows - he might be claiming 6'2").

So, yeah - if you're going to lie, go for the big, hairy audacious one: your favorite author (...me) is 6'8" and 280 lbs of solid muscleThe Beatles are bigger than Jesus.  Richard Nixon is not a crook.

And, for the rest of us - if you're reading something, especially something which contains a beautifully psychologically important round number - it's very hard to know if we're observing the truth or somebody rounding up a bit and fudging the almost truth.

Fake it until you make it, this is not (well, if you're over 20 and your growing days are behind you).  So, you tell me: what's your policy on dealing with claims on the internet?  Do you use an internet dating service?  What would you assume is the actual salary and height of a 6'0" tall $100,000 earner?

Oh, and you'd agree that I was 6'0" tall... right?



PK started DQYDJ in 2009 to research and discuss finance and investing and help answer financial questions. He's expanded DQYDJ to build visualizations, calculators, and interactive tools.

PK is in his mid-30s and works and lives in the Bay Area with his wife, two kids, and dog.

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