Here is a dilemma for me as a dating coach: Should I support my clients in their pursuit of people that are “out of their league” on dating sites? Or should I encourage them to be more realistic? A new study sheds some light on how common this is, and how high you should reach above your level for it to pay off.
The Matching Hypothesis
A well-known hypothesis in psychology dating from the 1960s is the Matching Hypothesis, which predicts that we seek out people of a similar level of social desirability to us. Despite its fame, this has not actually been confirmed. Studies have often focused on physical attractiveness alone, rather than other aspects of desirability, or on whom we end up with rather than whom we seek out. There is lots of research to show partners are often similar in terms of education, politics, ethnicity, and values. But that doesn’t tell us what we initially seek, only what we end up with.
More recent studies, such as Shaw Taylor et al, 2011, have looked at initial preferences on dating sites, instead of established relationships, which is a better test of the Matching Hypothesis. They also use a more general measure of desirability: popularity on a dating site, measured simply by the number of messages received by daters. Although we know people do focus a lot on the profile pictures on dating sites, physical appearance isn’t the only thing that makes people message each other. Desirability is affected by many features of your profile.
We all want to date more desirable people
Shaw Taylor et al found that everyone (including less desirable people) messages desirable people, conflicting with the Matching Hypothesis, which would predict that less desirable people would only message other less desirable people. However, since they are less likely to get responses from more desirable people, when you get to the stage of reciprocated messages, there is evidence of matching: i.e. you are more likely to get a reply from someone at a similar level of attractiveness.
We don’t want to match on everything
Bruch and Newman (2018) contrast the matching hypothesis with a competition hypothesis, which fits with evolutionary perspectives on mate selection. They review studies that show we tend to match on education and ethnicity, but compete on physical attractiveness and income.
Their measure of desirability is more sophisticated, using a technique from social network analysis: rather than just counting up the number of messages received, the desirability of the messengers is also taken into account. In other words, it’s not just the quantity of connections made, but their quality. More desirable people get more messages from other desirable people.
There are gender differences in attractiveness over time
Bruch and Newman’s study was carried out on a dating site in January 2014, using data from 187,000 users in four US cities, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. Some general findings from their study were that men get more desirable with age, peaking at 50. Women show the opposite trend, becoming less desirable from their 20s onwards. For both genders, the rate of increase or decrease slowed over time, so that there was less difference between say 40 and 50 than between 20 and 30.
Women replied to less than 20% of initial messages, and 80% of initial messages are from men. This supports findings from other studies.
Ethnic preferences reflect those from other studies
White men and Asian women were the most desirable, and Black women and Asian men the least, reflecting findings from other studies. (Read more about this in my other blog posts, such as Why you should talk to your White partner about race, Can Dating Change the World?, and Can you help who you’re attracted to?.)
How far out of our league should we go?
The focus of their study, however, is on the effect of the “desirability gap”, defined as the discrepancy between our desirability, and that of the person we seek to date. They found, contrary to the Matching Hypothesis, that we tend to contact people on average 25% more desirable than us (26% for men; 23% for women). That gap is narrower for the most desirable people. In fact, the most desirable receive a far greater number of initial messages, and the least desirable send the most messages. One woman in her 30s received on average a message every 30 minutes for the whole month!
Should we send fewer messages but work harder at them?
They also found that for those pursuing more desirable partners there was a strategy. They would send less messages and the messages they sent tended to be longer. Although they were less likely to get a reply from a more desirable person (less than 21% chance), by prioritising quality of message rather than quantity, they hoped for a pay-off. The results were mixed from city to city, but overall there was no pay-off. (As a guide to message length: research by the dating site OKCupid suggests that longer messages don’t work: 40-90 characters are what it recommends.)
Treat them mean, keep them keen….?
Another strategy used by women was to include more positive words in messages to more desirable men. There was no evidence that this worked. For men, the opposite strategy was more successful: they got more replies when they used less positive words, all things (like desirability gaps) being equal. This fits with research that shows that being selective makes you more attractive and that an element of uncertainty can increase women’s attraction towards men.
You have a 21% of getting a reply from someone 25% out of your league!
So how do you apply this research to your dating life? You can pursue the quality over quantity strategy, crafting less but better messages to those you are really interested in, rather than hundreds of generic ones. Tailoring a message to a person’s profile and asking stimulating questions that they’ll want to answer can get you more replies, even if you are out of someone’s league in terms of physical attractiveness. 21% chance of a reply from someone on average 25% out of your league is actually not bad odds if you really want someone and are prepared to put the effort in!
Are you working out making the best of yourself on your dating profile?
You also need to work at making yourself the most desirable you can – and I don’t mean just physical attraction. If you really are determined to get dates with people more desirable than you, then ask yourself: How can I make myself more desirable to them? Do I need to get some more interesting hobbies so I have more to talk about on a date? Do I need to read more, go to an evening class, join a film club? Do I need to lose weight, get a haircut, stop smoking, eat more healthily, get a new wardrobe, take up a sport and get fit? Think about whether the time spent sending largely unreciprocated messages could, over the next few months, be better spent getting you ready for the right person. And don’t forget that you need decent profile pictures and a profile that engages the RIGHT people – that’s where your dating coach comes in!
Are we focusing too much on the superficial?
On the other hand, we could also think about whether we are focusing too much on superficial aspects of desirability at these early stages of dating. The three dimensional moving, animated person is very different from a two dimensional picture. And as Frost et al have pointed out, data we can get from a profile (what they call “searchable attributes”) don’t tell us what it is like to be with that person (“experiential attributes”). Once we get to know someone, those superficial elements become less important. Someone who understands us, makes us feel good about ourselves, brings out the best in us, doesn’t score points or bottle up emotions, laughs at our jokes – all of these can make someone desirable, but we won’t know from viewing their profile.
You know all those profiles you gaze at, undecided about whether you find them physically attractive or not, and then reject – why not give them a chance?
To get help with any of the above, contact Rachel here to discuss a consultation.
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 Shaw Taylor, L. S., Fiore, A. T., Mendelsohn, G. A., & Cheshire, C. (2011). “Out of my league”: A real-world test of the matching hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(7), 942-954.
 Bruch, E. E., & Newman, M. E. J. (2018). Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets. Science Advances, 4(8), eaap9815.
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