A new study co-authored by three Saint Mary's University researchers had its inspiration in a discussion about how men might try to woo women into a long-term relationship using online dating.
The trio thought the pictures the men used might be a way of showing their commitment level.
"We came up with this idea of posting images of dependants," said psychology professor Maryanne Fisher.
"Basically, by putting a picture on an online dating profile of a dog, or at the time we thought cats, maybe children, men are advertising that they're able to take care of something for the long term."
The trio's hunch largely paid off. They found men seeking long-term relationships post significantly more images of dogs than men seeking short-term relationships.
"Men seeking short-term relationships tend to advertise more, their bare chests, you know, their fancy truck, things like that," said Fisher.
The findings didn't surprise one of Fisher's neighbours. She said she was speaking with him about the research and he remembered from his dating days how some men would go to Point Pleasant Park in Halifax with a dog and use it as a means of attracting women.
"The word on the street or the feedback we've received is that this is a well-known strategy, but no one's ever tested it in terms of an online dating environment," said Fisher.
How the research was carried out
To carry out the research, the study's authors looked at 500 dating profiles for people living in Nova Scotia who were looking for long-term relationships. They also looked at 250 profiles of men looking for short-term relationships.
Fisher said they couldn't find enough profiles for women seeking short-term relationships for an adequate sample.
For women seeking long-term relationships, Fisher said they were just as likely to post photos of dependants as men seeking long-term relationships. However, the photos were most likely to be of children.
"We really thought that women would feel protective or want some privacy about the pictures of their children, so we didn't expect that," she said.
Fisher said there's a considerable body of literature that shows the No. 1 perpetrators of homicide on children under the age of two in Canada are stepfathers.
The study was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.
Fisher said she couldn't disclose the name of the dating site the researchers used for the study because of a privacy agreement they have with the company.
She said they've received interesting feedback on their research. One of the "justified criticisms" has been that they can't be sure the people are truly being honest about the type of relationship they are seeking.
"We have to go at face value because we can't really interact with people," said Fisher.
She said the research literature shows that people tend not to make blatant lies in online dating. They use minor self-deception, things like saying they're younger than they are or that they're funny (when they aren't).
"They don't tend to make up a whole alternate life or, you know, the presence of an animal in their life when they don't have one," said Fisher.
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