Dating Up: A Study on How We Date Online

A girl in bed looking at people on a dating app on her phone.

Courtship is a process as old as us, but until recently it’s been tough to tell with any accuracy just how we do it. Now with online dating services, that’s all changed. Services like Match and Tinder collect data on daters that can tell us more about how we go about looking for love. In a recent study published in Science Advances, University of Michigan professor Elizabeth Bruch teamed up with an unnamed major dating site to pull the curtain back on this age-old process.

Here are a few key highlights that reveal how people are using online dating sites:

How It Works
The study pulled data from the website’s base of heterosexual daters in four major cities: Boston, Seattle, New York, and Chicago. Basically, the study assigned different dating profiles an attractiveness score on a scale of zero to one, one being the hottest profile and zero being the least. This number was determined by responses to messages sent (since men send 80% of the first messages) and messages received. The more attractive the profiles someone received messages and responses from the more attractive their profile ranked. Simple enough? Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), the habits of daters across different cities were remarkably similar, if not almost identical.

Reaching Up the Ladder
Bruch’s research found that “men and women both reach up the desirability ladder.” Meaning they try to date people who are more attractive than they are. Of course, the big question is by how much? The answer: about 25%. The study also found that the average response rate for a man contacting someone more attractive than them was never higher than 21%, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

Check the Strategy
But that’s not all. Using this data, the researchers were able to offer insight into how daters’ message strategy varied depending on the attractiveness of their potential partners. When writing to people more attractive than themselves, both men and women wrote messages that were up to twice as long, although this is more true for women than men. Also, “women show an increase in their use of positive words when communicating with more desirable partners while the men show a decrease.” Interesting.

Take All the Shots
Another interesting find? Both men and women combine dating up with dating across and dating down. In other words, we all try to date people more attractive than ourselves, but we balance out our odds by messaging people equally or less attractive to cast a wide net.

Shooting for the Stars
Out of your league doesn’t mean impossible. “The chances of receiving a reply from a highly desirable partner may be low, but they remain well above zero, although one will have to work harder and perhaps wait longer, to make progress.” For all of our ambitious daters out there this is probably the best news you can get.

A Few Final Tidbits
Once desirability was determined, the researchers were able to split off other desirable demographics from the profiles. The work found that women’s desirability drops from age 18 to 60, as they get older. Men actually increase in desirability until age 50, when they begin to decline. In the studied cities, Asian women and white men were the most desirable. For men, desirability increases with education, “for whom more education is always more desirable. For women, an undergraduate degree is most desirable; postgraduate education is associated with decreased desirability among women.”

Of course, these stats while revealing don’t necessarily tell us everything there is to know about the world of dating. For one, this is how people date online, and when there are more options available, one can be more discerning. Also in an interview with The Atlantic, Bruch said “what we are seeing is overwhelmingly the effect of white preferences. This site is predominantly white, 70 percent white. If this was a site that was 20 percent white, we may see a totally different desirability hierarchy.” Despite the limitations of the study, it’s exciting to see these small pieces of how we date decoded. It’s far from the whole story, but hopefully we’ll have a bit more of the rosetta stone uncovered.

Alex Bocknek

Alex Bocknek is the senior editor of The Date Mix and works at Zoosk, the online dating service. He’s also a recovering music critic and an aspiring fiction writer (probably lost) on the way to an independent bookstore near you. He can be found occasionally musing about politics, philosophy, and love in the modern world.

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