The proven science behind online dating

A new study of online dating shows that the idea of someone being ‘out of your league’ in the dating sphere is real

A new study of online dating ranked the desirability of different profiles and found some surprising trends

The more desirable someone is perceived, the more messages they get—even from people below their general level of desirability. (Shutterstock)

In the dog-eat-dog world of online dating, the theory that someone can be out of your league is now scientifically proven. That's one of the main findings of a new study published yesterday in Science Advances.

The study looked at dating profiles in big cities—New York, Seattle, Boston and Chicago—and used age, ethnicity, and level of education to help determine a desirability hierarchy. Looks weren't included in the criteria, as the team of researchers didn't have access to the online dating profile photos.

How can you define desirability?

Lead researcher Elizabeth Bruch from the University of Michigan had to figure out, without using profile pictures, what is perceived to be desirable. And merely tracking popularity wasn't enough.

"If you take two people, each of whom received a hundred messages, but person A received them from the most desirable people on the dating site and person B received them from the least desirable people on the dating site, we don't necessarily believe those two people are equally desirable," said Bruch.

Instead, their ranking tracked incoming messages by the desirability of the senders. So senders who are more desirable themselves pushed up the desirability of the receivers to a greater extent than senders who are less desirable.

Looking at users' age, ethnicity and education, the study found white, middle-aged and well-educated men were the most desirable. Women were the most desirable at their youngest (18 being the minimum age for these sites) and when college educated. But too much education hurt their desirability.

While the results may be surprising, Bruch warns against taking these results out of context.

"When we talk about cornering the market in online dating, who corners the market is really dependent on who's in the population and this online dating population is predominantly white users," she said.

Batting out of your league

The more desirable someone is perceived, the more messages they get—even from people below their general level of desirability.

The sociologists found that users tend to write longer messages when they determine a person is at least 25% more desirable—a strategy that doesn't always work. Still, it pays to message a lot of people on dating sites because only 21 per cent of messages receive a response.

Elizabeth Bruch is the lead author on the new study titled: Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets. (Submitted by Elizabeth Bruch)

They also found that it's more common for men to approach someone deemed to have a higher desirability ranking. But rather than sending long messages, they tended to play it cool—fewer positive words, fewer compliments—than when they messaged women of comparable desirability rankings.

While there are many more complicated methods of assessing a potential mate, this study is purely sociological—merely trying to see patterns in our behaviours. So being out of your league doesn't mean you aren't the perfect match in all the ways that matter.

The desirability index is meant to be a first step in determining desirability and then compatibilities, shared interests and sense of humour come next. Basically, all the things that take you beyond the looks good on paper stage that formed the basis of this study.

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.

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