Hey good lookin’

Confession time:  back in 2006, I tried online dating for a few months.  It was a stricter site…one where you had to be matched with people before you could see their information, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.  I never actually met up with anyone I met there (met my husband through friends before it got to that point), but I had some interesting revelations before I quit.  For most of the time, my main profile picture was a kind of funky/artsy photo a friend had taken of me from a distance.  I liked the picture quite a bit, so I didn’t think twice about putting it up.  About a week before I quit the site however, someone took a picture of me that was also cute, but it was just of my face.  I decided to put it up as my main picture, not thinking much of it.

I don’t think I checked the site again for a few days, but when I got back to it, I found I’d gotten quite the influx of messages.  Some of them were from guys who had access to my profile for a month.  I had unintentionally stumbled on to a truth of the online dating world: picture type matters.

I was thinking of this when I got forwarded this story from the WSJ best of the web column with the subtitle “The average woman has average looks, the average man is unsightly”.  It’s a take on this 2009 OkCupid blog post that shows that OkCupid users rank women on a normal distribution, and men on a right skewed distribution (the dotted lines show the ranking, the solid lines show how many messages they get):

Now, there’s some really interesting stuff going on here, some of which both articles touched on….but there’s a few things I’d like to highlight:
  • Neither article acknowledged the possibility that the average female user of a dating site might actually be more attractive than the average male user.  Repeat after me: this is not a random sample.  This is not a random sample.  This is NOT a random sample.  Everyone who puts up a profile was self selected.  You’d need a study on a random population before you could determine that women were harsher in their ratings.  People sign up for dating sites because they want something more than is available in their daily life.  If a highly attractive 30 year old male and 30 year old female were both considering signing up, the 30 year old female would likely have considerations around the biological clock issue that would push her to sign up faster than the 30 year old male.  Some people still see online dating as stigmatized, so pressure matters.
  • Are the women really more attractive, or do they just pick better pictures?  In the story I kicked off with, I mentioned that the picture mattered.  I was (obviously) the same person in both pictures, and they were taken 2 months apart…and yet it seems likely by my response rate that men would have rated my appearance differently in the two photos.  When academic studies look at how we rate attractiveness, they generally control for this by providing uniform head shots.  In the OkCupid post, they show examples of “average” women and men.  The average women appeared to have tried harder with their photos.
  • Men might have a more refined rating system. A few months ago I saw a link to a study that suggested that women had a more finely tuned rating system for humor than men.  The link had some sort of comment with it about how it was trying to make men look bad, but I read it differently.  We’re always hearing that women aren’t as funny as men because men use humor to attract a mate.  Thus it would only make sense if women had the better rating system.  It’s being used on them.  Men would not need a well refined rating system…they’re the ones using, not assessing.  Same thing here.  The OkCupid stats showed that men message the most attractive women 11 times more often than the least attractive ones, for women’s messages it’s only 4 to 1.  If ratings matter more to men, they’ll have developed more nuance (ie the 2-4 range will have more meaning).  Anecdotally, my male friends almost always include a rating of whatever girl they’ve most recently met (“she’s a total 9/dimepiece/HB8”).  My female friends seem more binary.  Either he’s attractive enough for them or not.
Anyway, those are my thoughts.  Well, not all my thoughts.  After reading about dating sites all morning, my most pronounced thought was “Gee I’m glad I’m married, this looks like a lot of work.”  Love you honey!

2 thoughts on “Hey good lookin’

  1. Here's a difference. Guys writing about their own relative attractiveness to an audience they know are essentially sticking out their chins and saying “Hit me,” completely unrelated to how attractive they actually are. Women, not so much.


  2. I can confirm that using a dating site is a lot of work. And that choice of pictures does have an effect on response rate.

    Anyway, about the study: even if the sample weren't so obviously skewed, I wouldn't be surprised by these results. Mainly from the general observation that men and women tend to evaluate each other using different metrics. Any attempt to measure along just one of those metrics is going to show skew.


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