Sixty years of research in social psychology show that positive, meaningful interactions with people different from us have strong positive effects, reducing our prejudices, making us trust, like and empathise with the ‘outgroup’, and making us feel less threatened by its members. This is known as intergroup contact theory. It has been shown to work with a wide range of social groups, ages, and cultures. The effect is strongest for friendship, and that includes dating. It can even affect people who just observe others having intergroup social interactions and relationships.
Dating people different from us involves various levels of intergroup contact, from browsing their profiles on a dating app, to playing silly games on video-dates, to sharing personal information, to falling in love. All positive forms of contact can enrich our perception of the outgroup, allowing us to see what we have in common as well as the diversity within the outgroup, and stopping us reducing all members to a stereotype.
Dating can change us, and it can change society.
Interethnic dating has the potential to break down barriers
A simulation by Ortega & Hergovich (2018) showed that interethnic dating has the potential to rapidly increase interethnic connections throughout society. The study uses statistical modelling on an artificial social network, carrying out 10,000 simulations. The researchers asked the question “Does online dating increase the proportion of interethnic marriages?” When we meet someone online, they are usually a complete stranger. So this adds a novel connection into our network. The authors show that introducing a small number of new connections with people from different ethnic groups rapidly increases interethnic connections across the network, a bit like a contagion – and we all understand that much better than we used to! We know from our (pre-pandemic) experiences that we get introduced to our friends’ new partners, and then perhaps to their friends at social events, and even their families if we get invited to a celebration. (During the pandemic, these processes will be happening more online than before – but that still has an effect.) These increased interethnic connections create an increase in interethnic marriages in the simulation.
The proportion of interethnic marriages in a society is often used by researchers as a way of measuring social mixing. So this study shows that interethnic dating has the potential to increase social mixing in society and break down barriers. The authors found that this simulation was consistent with the sharp increase in interracial marriages in the US in the last two decades, but the increase could not be fully explained by the changes in the composition of the US population. This means that dating is likely to be contributing to greater social mixing.
There is less segregation in online dating than offline
You might expect that online dating would make people more likely ‘to stick with their own’, whether in terms of ethnicity, education or politics, since they can apply filters on dating apps to large numbers of users, and so be very selective in advance of meeting someone. You might expect our private decisions about which filters to apply could make us less tolerant. There has been much made in the media of the swiping culture making us more superficial and at greater risk of unconscious bias, often judging by appearance only. And the algorithms used by dating apps – based on similarity with profiles we “like” or “swipe right” on – act as a filter themselves. But studies do not always support these predictions.
One recent study (Thomas, 2020)found that relationships starting online were more diverse for ethnicity, religion and education compared with offline. There is some segregation with dating apps, because of the algorithms. But, as Thomas puts it, “if the Internet is simply less highly-segregated than the offline world it can act as an integrating force in society” (p1282).
Social mixing during dating looks like a trend set to continue. Thomas argues that diversity in dating began with the late 20th century expansion in higher education. And he suggests that online dating has an advantage for mixing: in the initial stages, there is no interference or disapproval from family and friends, something that is a well-documented challenge to interethnic relationships. Young people in the US are more likely to date diversely and to believe that online dating gives them that opportunity.
In the UK, our intentions to date outside our comfort zone are higher than you might expect. As part of a Channel 4 programme in 2017 called Is Love Racist? Dr Keon West, a psychologist at Goldsmith’s University, London, surveyed a large representative sample from the UK on their dating preferences, and found that although only 9% of White respondents said they would date outside their ethnic group, 46% of Black and 67% of mixed heritage respondents were open to this. These are encouraging statistics that have the potential to break down barriers further. Although it is well-known in social psychology that our intentions and actual behaviour don’t always match up, in the case of dating research has shown that we are actually more open-minded than our stated preferences predict.
There is evidence that interactions on dating apps do make us more open-minded. Many US studies have shown that in initial messaging we are much more likely to contact someone of our own ethnic group, particularly if we are White. Mendelsohn (2014), using a sample of more than one million daters, found that Black daters were ten times more likely to initiate contact with a White dater than the other way round. Responding to an initial message showed a similar pattern but less so. However, another study showed that online daters have been shown to become more open in their ethnic preferences when they receive interest from outgroup daters (Lewis 2013). All ethnic backgrounds in a sample of 126,134 US daters were equally likely or more likely to cross an ethnic boundary. Lewis also found that users who receive a message from someone from another ethnic group were more likely to initiate more new interethnic exchanges in the future than they would have otherwise. This could be seen as a positive effect of intergroup contact in dating. (It is possible that this is related to boosting self-esteem, which can make us more open-minded.)
Dating outside our ethnic group has its dangers
As we saw above, many Black and ethnic minority daters DO want to mix (an argument against ethnic filters, which is discussed in more detail here). But what about White people, who are the least likely to date outside their ethnic group? It might be good for them to mix more, but Black and minority ethnic people don’t want to be guinea pigs in white people’s experimentation or education, nor do they want to spend their dates explaining why Black Lives Matter or why it’s insensitive to say “Where are you from?” when they’ve been born in Britain. There is deliberate, blatant racism on dating apps, but there is also subtle – and tedious – racism. Queenie, the British Book Award 2020 winner by London writer Candice Carty-Williams, graphically describes the experiences of a young Black woman dating, for anyone not familiar with the challenges.
Fetishization on dating apps is also common but is being challenged, particularly by male gay daters.Gay daters (especially women) are leading the way: they are the most likely to date outside their ethnic group. (There is, however, a long way to go with attitudes towards, for example, trans people of colour.)
Dating people different from you could be worth the risk
So there are dangers of encouraging more interethnic dating. But the risks may be worth it. Research has shown that intergroup contact generally is three times more likely to be positive than negative. And as described at the beginning of this article, the benefits to society are substantial and robust. Intergroup anxiety is a term to describe the fears of interacting with people different from you. It can be experienced in different ways by the minority and majority groups: the first may be afraid of racism, the second of being racist. But for White daters at least, the more people you get to know from minority groups, the more you learn and the easier it gets.
As we have discussed elsewhere, there are possible ways forward. Here are a few more. Could we have a crash course in sensitively dating people different from us, provided by the dating apps? Could you get a badge if you’ve taken part in unconscious bias training provided by the app? Could AI be used by the app to give targeted, constructive feedback to White daters who need it?
Let’s all be open to dating less superficially
From our interviews (documented elsewhere), we found that it wasn’t only White people who make claims like “I’m just not attracted to Asian men”. (See here for a discussion of sexual preferences.) I confess that I would never have met my boyfriend online because I had filtered out people without an undergraduate degree. Perhaps there is a more general point to take away here. We could all objectify and categorise each other less, judge less superficially, and focus more on whether we share values, goals and interests.
And as Sam, 24, trans, British, and of mixed heritage, commented: “I would rather know my date’s food preference than their race”.
With thanks to Aaliyah Blaikie for her useful feedback on sensitive issues raised in this article and help with interviews. I recognise that my contribution to discussion of issues around racism is limited by being White, and have welcomed the thoughts of friends, family and interviewees from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds. I am also grateful to my ex-colleagues from the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford for many years of sharing and discussing their research on intergroup contact with me.
My hashtag #ethicaldating expresses the desire to bring our values into our dating.
 Dovidio, J. F., Love, A., Schellhaas, F. M., & Hewstone, M. (2017). Reducing intergroup bias through intergroup contact: Twenty years of progress and future directions. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20(5), 606-620.
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 Christ, O., Schmid, K., Lolliot, S., Swart, H., Stolle, D., Tausch, N., … & Hewstone, M. (2014). Contextual effect of positive intergroup contact on outgroup prejudice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(11), 3996-4000.
 Paterson, J. L., Turner, R. N., & Conner, M. T. (2015). Extended contact through cross‐group romantic relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(9), 489-497 and Maimon, M. R. (2020). The impact of interracial romantic couple exposure on conceptions of race (Doctoral dissertation, Rutgers University-School of Graduate Studies)
 Ortega, J. & Hergovich, P., (2018). The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration retrieved from https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:arx:papers:1709.10478.
 Hasler, B. S., & Amichai-Hamburger, Y. (2013). Online intergroup contact. In Y. Amichai-Hamburger (Ed.), The social net: Understanding our online behavior (p. 220–252). Oxford University Press.
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 Thomas, R. J. (2020). Online exogamy reconsidered: Estimating the Internet’s effects on racial, educational, religious, political and age assortative mating. Social Forces, 98(3), 1257-1286. Thomas surveyed people in relationships in the US from 2009 and 2017, totalling a sample of roughly 3000.
 However, there was no difference between online and offline for politics or mother’s education – a proxy for social class. The study is a good one because it takes geographical location into account, unlike previous studies. This is important because if we live in a more ethnically diverse area, for example, we are likely to be more open to dating outside our ethnic group already.
 Blossfeld, H. P., 2009. Educational Assortative Marriage in Comparative Perspective. Annual Review of Sociology 35, 513–30.
 Paterson, J. L., Turner, R. N., & Conner, M. T. (2015). Extended contact through cross‐group romantic relationships. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(9), 489-497.
 https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/data/dating-app-statistics-by-age 64% of 18- to 24-year-olds say that dating websites and apps allow them to be more diverse in who they date
 Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 245-264.
 Mendelsohn, G. A., Shaw Taylor, L., Fiore, A. T., & Cheshire, C. (2014). Black/White dating online: Interracial courtship in the 21st century. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(1), 2-18.
 Lewis, K. (2013). The Limits of Racial Prejudice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(47), 18814–19.
 Defined as “sexual racism, an act of either sexually excluding non-whites as potential partners or including racial minorities as sexual partners based only on racial fetishes” by Han, C. S., & Choi, K. H. (2018). Very few people say “No Whites”: Gay men of color and the racial politics of desire. Sociological Spectrum, 38(3), 145–161.
 West, K. (2019). Interethnic bias in willingness to engage in casual sex versus committed relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 57(4) 409-420.
 Han, C. S., & Choi, K. H. (2018). Very few people say “No Whites”: Gay men of color and the racial politics of desire. Sociological Spectrum, 38(3), 145–161.
 Lundquist, J. H., & Lin, K. (2015). Is love (color) blind? The economy of race among white gay and straight daters. Social Forces, 93(4), 1423–1449.
 Blair, K. L., & Hoskin, R. A. (2019). Transgender exclusion from the world of dating: Patterns of acceptance and rejection of hypothetical trans dating partners as a function of sexual and gender identity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(7), 2074-2095.
 Buggs, S. G. (2020). (Dis) Owning Exotic: Navigating Race, Intimacy, and Trans Identity. Sociological Inquiry, 90(2), 249-270.
 Graf, S., Paolini, S., & Rubin, M. (2014). Negative intergroup contact is more influential, but positive intergroup contact is more common: Assessing contact prominence and contact prevalence in five Central European countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(6), 536-547.