A new paper by Complex Systems professors Elizabeth Bruch and Mark Newman describes a large-scale study of online dating behavior.
Out of your league? Study shows most online daters seek significantly more desirable mates even though the chances of getting a response are lower.
If you’re in the 30% of never-married Americans who’ve used an online dating service, you might wonder how anecdotal wisdom about attraction holds up in the virtual arena.
When it comes to being in or out of someone’s “league,” a large-scale analysis published in this week’s Science Advances upholds the adage. Researchers at the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute showed that leagues do emerge in online dating networks, in the form of a hierarchy of desirability. Moreover, they found that the majority of people message prospects who are about 25% more desirable than themselves, and send relatively longer messages to contacts who are further up the hierarchy.
“We have so many folk theories about how dating works that have not been scientifically tested,” says Elizabeth Bruch, a sociologist and the study’s lead author. “Data from online dating gives us a window on the strategies that people use to find partners.”
To rate users’ desirability, the researchers used a ranking algorithm based on the number of messages a person receives, and the desirability of the senders. “If you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumably more desirable yourself,” they write in the paper.
“Rather than relying on guesses about what people find attractive, this approach allows us to define desirability in terms of who is receiving the most attention and from whom,” says co-author Mark Newman.
The researchers applied the algorithm to anonymized data from users of a dating website in four major U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. The study is the first large-scale analysis to focus on hierarchies of desirability in online dating data. Among other things, it reveals how people behave strategically during online courtship by altering the length and number of messages they send to individuals at different levels of desirability.
Because most users send the majority of their messages “up” the hierarchy—out of their league— a lot of messages go unanswered.
“I think a common complaint when people use online dating websites is they feel like they never get any replies,” Bruch says. “This can be dispiriting. But even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21% of people who engage in this aspirational behavior do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off.
”Bruch says the study also shows that sending longer messages to more desirable prospects may not be particularly helpful, though it’s a common strategy. Of the four cities analyzed, the notable exception was the Seattle, where the researchers did observe a payoff for writing longer messages.
So if messages are the measure of desire, what prompts people to hit the ‘send’ button? When the researchers compared desirability scores against user attributes, they found correlations between age, education level, and ethnicity. For example—up to the age of 50, older men tended to have higher desirability scores than younger men, while women’s desirability scores tended to decline from ages 18 to 60.
Though the study affirms that many people are making choices that align with popular stereotypes, Bruch stresses that this is not a rule that holds for all individuals.
“There can be a lot of heterogeneity in terms of who is desirable to whom. Our scores reflect the overall desirability rankings given online dating site users’ diverse preferences, and there may be sub-markets in which people who would not necessarily score as high by our measures could still have an awesome and fulfilling dating life.
”She also emphasizes that this is just the first, and perhaps shallowest, phase of courtship. Previous dating research has shown that as people spend time together, their unique character traits become more important relative to other attributes.