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When Should Daters Be Wary of Online Profiles?

Research explores why people behave badly in online dating.

Key points

  • Misrepresentation was related to high levels of vulnerable narcissism and Machiavellian tactics.
  • Individuals who breadcrumbed others scored higher on vulnerable narcissism and Machiavellian views.
  • Those who had ghosted others had higher levels of online dating misrepresentation.
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Do you know anyone who desires constant approval, possibly due to their feelings of inadequacy? This is often characteristic of vulnerable narcissism. Maybe you know someone who believes that they are generally superior to others, referred to as a grandiose narcissist. Perhaps you have encountered someone who manipulates others for their own ends (employs Machiavellian tactics) or who simply sees others as untrustworthy or dishonest (has Machiavellian views). Finally, there are people who display superficial behaviour to manipulate others, behaviour known as primary psychopathy, or who may even display hostile or impulsive behaviour against others, known as secondary psychopathy. This group of personality traits is collectively referred to as the Dark Triad and has generally been found to be related to a tendency to lie, along with displaying an egotistical and controlling attitude to relationships.

There is evidence that individuals possessing Dark Triad traits are more likely to misrepresent (present inauthentic information about themselves) on social media platforms (Geary et al., 2021). However, is this also the case in online dating? Certainly, using misrepresentation on online dating sites offers more potential gains to users compared to misrepresentation on social media platforms (e.g., more potential hook-ups).

Online dating sites also provide an environment where users can utilize other undesirable behaviours such as breadcrumbing—knowingly "leading on" a potential romantic interest with no intention of developing a relationship, and ghosting—terminating a romantic relationship by suddenly breaking off contact with a partner or date. Are such behaviours also perhaps related to the Dark Triad traits?

The extent to which misrepresentation in online dating, breadcrumbing, and ghosting are related to the Dark Triad traits was investigated by researchers Megan Willis, Eliza Oliver, and Evita March (Willis, Oliver, & March, 2023). In their study, they measured inauthentic self-presentation (misrepresentation) in online daters using a self-report method, where they calculated the difference between daters’ authentic selves and their online dating selves. They also measured levels of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and, finally, the antisocial dating behaviours of breadcrumbing and ghosting, with two questions:

  1. “Breadcrumbing is the act of engaging in intermittent communication with a romantic interest but with no intention of progressing the relationship, have you ever breadcrumbed someone?”
  2. “Ghosting is where a relationship is discontinued through silence and without acknowledgment of termination, have you ever ghosted someone?”

Dark Triad Personality and Misrepresentation

First, the researchers observed a relationship between online dating misrepresentation and vulnerable narcissism, secondary psychopathy, and Machiavellianism tactics. In other words, the larger the discrepancy between a person’s authentic self and their online dating self (greater levels of online dating misrepresentation) the higher the levels of these traits. Feelings of inadequacy, impulsive behaviour, and manipulation of others would all seem to be related to the motivation to misrepresent.

The fact that grandiose narcissism did not predict online dating misrepresentation is explained by the fact that this trait usually describes a person with supreme confidence in themselves. Consequently, such people may not feel that they must misrepresent themselves in online dating because they are confident of their status and appearance anyway. Furthermore, online dating platforms do not afford the same opportunities for egotistical displays available on social media platforms.


Individuals who reported that they had breadcrumbed other people scored higher on levels of online dating misrepresentation compared to those who reported not engaging in breadcrumbing, and these levels were similar for men and women. Those who reported having breadcrumbed others also scored higher on vulnerable narcissism and Machiavellianism views, compared with those who reported not having breadcrumbed anyone previously. It seems that the need to breadcrumb others may be driven by feelings of inadequacy and a desire to manipulate others.


Similarly, those who reported that they had ghosted others scored higher on online dating misrepresentation compared with those who had not ghosted others, and, again, the levels were similar for men and women. Additionally, individuals who reported having ghosted a partner or date in the past scored higher on vulnerable narcissism and secondary psychopathy in comparison to those who hadn’t ghosted a partner or date previously.

Overall, the researchers found that ghosting was more common than breadcrumbing. Daters may be more motivated to breadcrumb for the sake of seeking attention, whereas ghosting may not necessarily be driven by a desire to hurt or manipulate others but by a desire to withdraw from a relationship quietly and without causing conflict with an ex-partner.

Misrepresentation in online dating may well be motivated by a desperate desire to secure a romantic partner. However, the researchers warn that if misrepresentation is also related to the Dark Triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) and also a proclivity to breadcrumb or ghost others, then maybe we should be careful and wary of forming relationships with those who misrepresent. Such behaviour may be a warning sign that they will engage in future malicious behaviour once they have settled into a relationship.


Geary, C., March, E., Grieve, R., (2021). Insta-identity: Dark personality traits as predictors of authentic self-presentation on Instagram. Telematics Inform. 63, 101669.

Willis, M. L., Oliver, E. & March, E., (2023). Dating in the dark: Vulnerable narcissism predicts inauthentic self-presentation in online dating. Telematics Inform, 81. 101985.

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