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In the game of online dating, men and women try to level up, study finds

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In the world of online dating, men and women look to find someone a little out of their league, according to a new study. Scientists who analyzed user data from a popular dating site have found that heterosexual men and women reach out to potential dating partners who are on average about 25 percent more attractive than they are.

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances, shed new light on the patterns and priorities of men and women when they peruse dating sites.

Researchers have long tried to pin down the behaviors that drive people to choose particular romantic partners.

Couples, married or not, tend to have similar ages, educations, levels of attractiveness and a host of other characteristics. This could mean that people try to find partners who "match" their stats. On the other hand, it could mean that people try to find slightly more attractive mates, which results in the same pattern as the most desirable partners pair off, followed by the next most desirable, and so on.

The problem is that looking at established couples leaves out the process of courtship –– which could tell you much more about what people look for in a mate, how they woo them and how often they're rejected.

"What you don't observe is all the people who asked out someone who said 'no' – which is really the information you need if you want to understand desirability hierarchies," said lead author Elizabeth Bruch, a computational sociologist at the University of Michigan.

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Online dating offers a solution, because you can see who first contacts whom, and whether the recipient responds to that initial message.

So for this paper, the scientists used anonymized data from an unnamed dating site for nearly 187,000 users across four U.S. cities –– New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle –– for a month.

Rather than gauge individual attractiveness or desirability themselves, the scientists relied on the site users to do the rankings: Users were ranked as more desirable depending on how many first messages they received, and depending on how desirable the senders themselves were.

It's an iterative algorithm called PageRank, used by Google to rank websites in their search engine results. (The most popular person in their data set was a 30-year-old woman in New York who received 1,504 messages, about one every half hour.)

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