Online dating is terrible. Like nearly everything save for most flowers and Keanu Reeves, it’s even worse when you inspect it closely. Unfortunately for us, that’s what social science researchers Elizabeth E. Bruch and M. E. J. Newman did in their recent study, “Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets,” letting us all confirm all of our suspicions about modern mating rituals.
The study focused on the heterosexual dating markets in New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle, analyzing messaging and demographic data from an unnamed online dating service. Participants were each assessed for “desirability,” a statistic quantified through the amount of first messages a person received and how desirable the senders of those “wyd”s were.
(People familiar with the website popularity ranking algorithm PageRank will recognize that researchers adopted Google’s methodology into the dating world. Yes. It’s Sex Engine Optimization. I said it, now we can move on.)
The researchers found that, despite the range of human attraction and the fact that everybody’s looking for something different, there were consistencies in the “desirability” of certain demographics across the four cities. People, it seems, are driven more by the possibility of finding someone “out of their league” on some unspoken desirability matrix than they are of actually connecting based on “subjective personal qualities such as attractiveness.” Instead of searching for their perfect someone, everyone seems to be searching for the perfect someone.
The two most highly desirable set of demographics are consistent across all four cities. Based on the breakdown, the ideal man on these sites is a white 50-year-old with a postgraduate degree. The ideal woman is Asian, 18 and college-educated. Women drop off in desirability once they turn 19 and/or get a postgraduate degree. Is anyone still questioning why America is in the middle of the women’s movement?
The research also shows white supremacy at play in all four dating pools. Like the findings from OKCupid founder Christian Rudder’s 2014 book “Dataclysm,” this study reports that PageRank and first-message rates are lowest among Asian-American men and African-American women. This is a statistic that’s been discussed for years, with similar data emerging from a Facebook-based attraction study in 2013 showing that African-American women and men both had the lowest response rates to their messages. White supremacy within desirability rankings has been a topic of discussion since long before online dating and has been addressed more than once from a first-person perspective and by researchers (though not by the two whose study we’re discussing).
People pursue partners based on magazine demographics, idealizing and demonizing qualities relative to a socially constructed value index. Bruch and Newman’s work suggests confirmation of the sexual selection process that the researchers call “the competition hypothesis.” Under this theory, “there is consensus about what constitutes a desirable partner and... mate seekers, regardless of their own qualifications, pursue those partners who are universally recognized as the most desirable.”
Also at play is a competing theory, the “matching hypothesis,” which suggests that people “pursue partners who resemble themselves” and therefore “differ in their opinions about what constitutes a desirable partner or at least about who is worth pursuing.”
People, it turns out, take a hybrid matching/competition approach to dating. While about equal when it comes to messaging people who are on a matching level, men message more people who are “out of their league,” both above (up to 26% higher) and below (just a few percentage points). When contacting “women less desirable than themselves,” men “are more than twice as likely to receive a reply.” The likelihood of a woman responding to a less desirable man is never more than 21%, basically a one-fifth shot. Women tend to focus on messaging desirability-equaling matches, only occasionally messaging people up to 23% higher than their league and mainly ignoring people below their desirability level.
Both men and women will generally write longer messages to people who are higher on the scale than they are (people in Seattle will straight-up double the amount of words they’re sending when contacting someone much more desirable than they are). But even though men will write more to women who are at a higher desirability level, they tend to use fewer positive words in these messages than they do the shorter ones to less-desirable people. Yes, that’s right: scientific proof of negging (not that anyone needed it). But, somehow making matters even worse, apparently this practice happens because it works. “Men,” the study explains, “experience slightly lower reply rates when they write more positively worded messages.” (Granted, researchers don’t detail how many of these responses are women telling men to fuck off.)
In the grand scheme of things, the research shows it apparently doesn’t even matter what we say or how long we take to say it. Response rates are surprisingly consistent no matter whether the message is long or short, positive or not. People respond to the people they want to respond to, and very little modulation of effort seems to make a difference in that. The data downright supports lazy nihilism: “Effort put into writing longer or more positive messages may be wasted,” researchers admit.
So what does this study prove? That there’s no point in saying anything other than “hey, sup”? That you can hit on whomever you want knowing nothing you say or do will increase the 41 percent chance that they might respond? That our worst social tendencies get exaggerated when we self-segregate our dating practices and codify them within a flawed system of self-perpetuating prejudicial patternmaking? Yes. Those things. That’s what this study proves.