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When I started casually dating my boyfriend, I told him that I wasn’t a “jeans and sneakers kind of woman.” That was a blatant lie; I pretty much wear black jeans every day. On some primal level, I think I was trying to take stabs in the dark at the type of woman he’d find attractive. When he called, I told him I was busy baking cookies or making myself dinner, subtly implying that a life with me would mean he’d have food on the table all the time. When he asked to see me, I carefully offered a single free evening, hoping he’d wonder what I was up to the other six nights a week.
Even if I was merely guilty of projecting a superior version of myself, it turns out that I’m not alone. We’re all capable of a great deal of dishonesty during the courting stage, as a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology makes clear. The researchers called these lies “relationship-initiating behaviors” or “sexual priming.” The study was pretty simple: when participants were paired with people of the opposite gender and told to have a conversation, they lied about themselves more often if they had been asked to watch pornography before entering the room. More specifically, they lied to make themselves seem more similar to their conversation partner, in some cases even lying about their political opinions or knocking a few notches off their bedposts when asked how many people they’d slept with.
A 2013 study from Ohio State University psychologist Terri Fisher, PhD supports a similar illustration of the dating game, in which people will say just about anything to a person they’re trying to have sex with. Of course, Dr. Fisher’s study only examined the behaviors (and white lies) of straight college students age 18 to 25, but her findings mirror similar data gathered among older people and queer people.
In 2018, a study conducted by Stanford and University of Oregon discovered the most common type of lie we tell prospective sex partners: the “butler lie,” or the kind of thing Bruce Wayne would ask his butler Alfred to say to party guests if he needed to make a quick exit for Batman reasons. “I’m very busy,” our lying butler selves tell the people we’re dating, “and when we’re not together, I’m doing whatever thing you’d find most impressive.”
Based on studies published in the last few years, these are the five genres of lies we tell the people we want to sleep with. Note that they’re all gray area semi-forgivable lies, and keep in mind that the research doesn’t condone continuing to lie to your partner in a committed relationship. It’s just a picture of the harmless fibs we tell in order to get what we want.
Lying about your lifestyle
If you’ve never had the displeasure of browsing men’s profiles on Tinder, Bumble, and other dating apps, this is a pretty succinct summation: every guy has a picture with his adorable niece or someone’s adorable dog, a picture on the dance-floor at a friend’s wedding, a shot with an unidentified attractive woman, and a photo taken at the top of a mountain or on a boat, holding a fish.
If dating app photos were 100% truthful, the entire millennial generation would be out fishing, hiking, skydiving, and dancing in formal wear every single weekend. But that’s obviously not the case; we all just curate our dating profiles to appear more outdoorsy, active, interesting and beloved by our peers than anyone could realistically be.
“I’m more interesting and cultured than you’d think!”
If you’ve ever suspected a cute person was making a reference to something and panic-Googled the contents of their text message, you probably understand what this lie feels like. Nobody wants to tell someone they find attractive that they haven’t seen as many movies, read as many books, or listened to as many podcasts as they have. We all want to come off informed, so it’s not that unusual to say something like, “Oh, sure, I must have read that one New Yorker article… remind me of the high points again?”
Think back to the kinds of dates you and your partner went on when you were first seeing each other, and compare these activities to your most recent “date night.” In the beginning, you were probably flexing, suggesting the two of you go stare at some paintings or make pottery or go apple picking, but nowadays, the two of you usually just get dinner, drinks, and see a movie.
“I’m more busy than you’d think!”
If humans were cold, calculating animals, we’d probably tell prospective sexual partners to come over literally anytime. “I’m home watching Netflix in my underwear,” we’d say, “but I will throw everything off my coffee table and brush my teeth immediately if you’re free to swing by.”
But we’re not; we’re lying pigs, so even if you’re available to grab drinks with the cute girl from the office, there’s a chance you’ll play your cards a little closer to the chest when she asks you out.
Lying about your emotions
Love is messy, but everyone knows it is. You’re allowed to act a little “out there” when you’re mutually in love with another person, because emotions are (at least in the beginning of a relationship) evidence that you care. But before you’ve locked it down and had the “what are we?” conversation, most of us understand that it’s common practice to gloss over your emotions. You might say to a date, “that’s cool if you have to cancel, no worries,” as you simultaneously call your best friend to ask why you always chase unavailable girls.
On Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) explains to her best friend that she has a huge crush on a coworker (Adam Scott), and while she tries to downplay how upset she is, her emotions leak out in a funny way. “I’m like that lightbulb,” she says, pointing to a light on the ceiling. “Weak, flickering, barely giving off any light. Unable to make-out with the lightbulb I want to make-out with.” It’s a classic scene because most of us understand her predicament.
“I’m more upbeat and carefree than you’d think!”
Getting into your first big argument with your partner is a sign of emotional intimacy for a reason. During the courtship stage, it’s really unusual to experience any conflict with a person you’re dating, because we’re all scanning for red flags as much as we’re lying.
When you’re dating someone new, you probably have a tendency to treat them like a guest in your life, and you’re not going to lose your mind on a guest for spilling a glass of water. Everyone wants to come off drama-free to a new make-out partner; that’s why so many dating profiles say “I’m low key,” “super chill,” and “just trying to meet someone fun.” No one starts a relationship with a WWIII-level blowout fight in the middle of IKEA, but most of us are headed in that direction anyway at some point.
“I don’t have any emotional baggage!”
The odds of dating someone who’s never slept with or had feelings for another person are extremely slim, unless you exclusively date people who grew up in underground bunkers. But most people understand basic dating etiquette and avoid mentioning their exes on early dates. You may even find yourself erasing your ex-girlfriend from otherwise interesting stories, telling your new date that you once stayed in a really cool hotel in the Bahamas and conveniently leaving out the part that you and your ex-girlfriend only left the room to come up for air and get food.
Lying about how closely you adhere to gender stereotypes
This dishonest practice isn’t exclusive to straight people, but studies have shown that it is pretty prevalent with straight college students. That makes sense, as many of us spend our adolescence and early adulthood trying to gauge how we come off to others, especially in the dating world.
As evidence in Discovery’s “The Science of Sex Appeal” documentary, most people determine their own attractiveness level through a long period of trial and error. We swing for the fences when we first enter the dating pool, and then most of us learn through instances of rejection that we may not be the most attractive candidates in the room.
In one of the documentary’s studies, researchers determined that straight men and women walk differently when they believe they’re being perceived by the opposite gender. Women swing their hips more, and men lead with their shoulders. Most interestingly, both men and women do this without noticing; when asked, subjects in the study said they weren’t choosing to alter their behavior in order to look more masculine or feminine.
“I’ve slept with a ‘normal’ number of people!”
Lying about one’s “body count” changes over time, according to several studies on the subject. Male college students inflate their number of sexual partners if an attractive woman asks (in a study) how many people they’ve slept with, and female college students do the opposite.
However, in a different study, results indicated that adult men and women both downplay their sexual experience when speaking with attractive strangers, which suggests that men learn to chill out over time.
Lying about your body type
There are few “long cons” more misguided than cat-fishing someone, and yet the internet made it very easy to draw in potential dates with an idealised version of your body and face. OKCupid, a popular dating service which publishes a ton of native anonymized data, determined that the more attractive a person’s profile photo is, the more likely it is to be over a year old.
Still it’s hard to blame people for fibbing about their height and weight, given how militant most dating profiles are about certain cutoffs. It’s very common to see women demanding men only message them if they’re over 6 feet tall, and the data shows men look for physical indicators on womens’ profiles that suggest big curves with a tiny waist. This pattern of small fibs around one’s apperance is called “kittenfishing,” or Catfishing Lite.
Lying about your relationship status
Within this category, there are two different kinds of butler lies (as defined by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study above). Because new paramours don’t really know us yet, we don’t tend to give them up to date information about where we are. But it’s not just radio silence; most of us are controlling our tiniest moves like we’re playing 3-D chess on the Starship Enterprise.
We want to look busy, but we also don’t want to confirm nor deny whether we’re seeing anyone else. The “rules” of most early relationships decree that a partner can’t expect monogamy without asking for it… which means most of us are playing the field up until the conversation my little sister calls “the DTR,” or “define the relationship” talk.
It may seem like a bummer that the vast majority of singles are routinely lying to each other’s faces, but most of these lies are understandable, if not 100% forgivable. After all, the only thing that’s going to drive a hot date away faster than a few white lies is radical candor. I know people tell you to “just be yourself” on first dates, but the data shows you’re better off just being a slightly calmer, cooler, and mysterious version of yourself. That’s what everyone else is trying to pull off, anyway.