11/16/2011 11:25 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2012

Confessions of a Mask: The Temptations of Online Anonymity

Dating is a miserable business. Part popularity contest, part Nuremberg Trial, part aikido (block that rejection!) we meet and greet and hope for the best, sometimes clicking, mostly not, and often wondering: Why do we bother?

When I was single, I hated it (the dating part). Until I hooked up on the Internet. On friends' advice, I went anonymous, describing my nameless self in glowing terms, and hoping against hope that the people checking out my profile were being a lot more honest than I was. It's not that I was lying, exactly. I was just massaging the truth. A lot.

I felt powerful, hiding under a mask. Who was I hurting, I rationalized? Who cared if I wasn't really 45 (I'd just turned 50) or if "sports enthusiast" meant I liked Ping Pong? What harm was there in calling myself successful -- as in "successful creative pro" -- when I'd second-mortgaged my co-op that month and couldn't afford to take a vacation? Did it matter that "loves to have a good time" meant "in bed by 10 p.m. and don't drink"? I was building a whole new reputation: A bigger, richer, more affable ME. Anonymity was the way to go, I thought: self-reinvention without a shrink. A face lift without the scalpel.

It was also disastrous, ethically speaking. Untethered by the need to tell the truth, my ego started acting out big time. Exaggeration became deceit. Covering up became disappearance. After any number of online chats with individuals out of my league -- just to see if they'd talk to me! -- I lied about being unavailable or simply blew them off. I toyed with people's online affections. I became a certified dating jerk in a way that I never would have in real life. It reminded me of the passage from Lord of the Flies in which Jack, the ring leader, covers himself with war paint and screams with delight at his new face, his mask:

"He looked in astonishment, no longer at himself but at an awesome stranger... Beside the pool his sinewy body held up a mask that drew their eyes and appalled them. He began to dance and his laughter became a bloodthirsty snarling... The mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness."

I, too, felt liberated from myself under the cloak of online courtship. But with this freedom came a sinking sense of virtual moral degradation. I had not been a liar -- but now I was lying. Before, I cared about people's feelings but now was aggressive, elusive and shady. I was fast becoming one of "those people": The spineless, deceptive, selfish, and shallow. Something had to give.

In a book called The Lucifer Effect, psychologist Philip Zimbardo describes in terrifying detail how wearing a mask can change behavior (and why in most countries, including our own, it's illegal to hide your face in public). During his famous Stanford Prison Experiment -- in which Zimbardo studied what happened to ordinary people when allowed to dress up as cops and hide behind mirrored sunglasses -- he was shocked by the power of a police uniform to turn non-aggressive people into sadists. Though we like to think of ourselves as having consistent personalities in all situations, this is simply untrue, wrote Zimbardo, warning that "we have a tendency to overestimate our own character strength while underestimating the power of situations." I was witnessing this principle for myself in the anonymous carnival of online dating. And the man in the mirror -- the mask in the mirror -- was scaring the hell out of me.

Online dating has become institutionalized lying. Forget about actual predators (as David Schwimmer's film Trust illustrates brilliantly, in which a thirty-something child molester passes himself off as a teenage peer). Even in casual socializing, the devil of deception has too free reign in the all-too-anonymous details. This is bad for self-confidence, bad for love and worst for our need for human connection without avatars, screen names or clicking mouses. Tempting as it is to wear a mask and present ourselves as other people, it's better to be alone, I learned, than virtually hooked up and stimulated beneath a façade of online deception.

Connecting with people is hard enough without the magical thinking.

Crossposted at Psychology Today.