Judging Attractiveness

From time to time, I see this graph pop up on Twitter: 

It’s from this blog post here, and it is almost always used as an example of how picky women are. The original numbers came from a (since deleted) OK Cupid blog post here. From what I can tell they deleted it because the whole “women find 80% of men below average” thing was really upsetting people.

Serious question though….has this finding been replicated in studies where men and women don’t get to pick their own photos?

As anyone who’s looked at Facebook for any length of time knows, photo quality can vary dramatically. For people we know, this is a small thing…”oh so and so looks great in that picture”, “oh poor girl looks horrible in that one”, etc etc. One only needs to walk in to a drug store to note that women in particular have a myriad of ways to alter their appearance….make up, hair products, hair styles, and I’m sure there are other things I am forgetting. Your average young male might use some hair product, but rarely alters anything beyond that.

So basically, women have a variety of ways to improve their own appearance, whereas men have very few. Women are also more rewarded for having a good looking photo on a dating site. From the (deleted) OK Cupid article:

So the most attractive male gets 10x the number of messages as the least attractive male, but the most attractive woman gets 25x the number of messages. A woman of moderate attractiveness has a huge incentive to get the best possible photo of herself up on the site, whereas a similarly placed man doesn’t have the same push. Back when I made a brief foray in to dating sites, I noted that certain photos could cause the number of messages in my inbox to triple overnight. With that kind of feedback loop, I think almost every woman would trend toward optimizing their photo pretty quickly. Feedback would be rather key here too, as research suggests we are actually pretty terrible at figuring out what a good photo of ourselves actually looks like.

Side note: as we went over in a previous post, measuring first messages puts guys at a disadvantage from the get go. Men as a group receive far fewer messages from women on these sites. This means their feedback loop is going to be much more subtle than women’s, making it harder for them to figure out what to change.

My point is, I’m not sure we should take this data seriously until we compare it to what happens when all the pictures used are taken under the same conditions. The idea that the genders select their photos differently is a possible confounder.

I did some quick Googling to see if I could find a similar distribution of attractiveness rankings for a general research study, and I did find this one from a Less Wrong post about a study on speed dating: 

They note that men did rate the average woman slightly higher (6.5) than women rated the average man (5.9), but note that we see a bell curve rating in both cases. The standard deviation was noted to be the same (0.5). At a minimum, I feel this suggests that online perceptions do not translate cleanly in to real life. I suspect that’s a statement that can be applied to many fields.

I’d be interested to see any other non-dating site data sets people know about, to see what distribution they follow.

8 thoughts on “Judging Attractiveness

  1. Not sure it’s meaningful to do a study like this using only photographs. There are too many other factors involved in attraction: body language, tone of voice, dynamic facial expressions, and actual *chemistry* (there is some evidence that female attraction to a man or lack of same is influenced by subconscious immune-system factors.) Video would be better, but probably not nearly as meaningful as face-to-face interaction.


    • It would be interesting to see what the ratings would look like if someone did both for the same group of people….have one group rate photos, the other group meet them in person. I suspect the two rankings would be correlated but not identical, for all the reasons you mention.


  2. I think anon above is largely correct. I don’t know that the two studies are actually measuring the same thing. Like it or not, female attractiveness to men is primarily visual while women seem to use a more holistic scale when rating men. In person meetings will thus probably narrow the range of attractiveness differential.

    I’m also not sure the absolute attractiveness of the photos is that big a determinate. With that kind of disparity you’d almost have to assume men were picking pictures with no regard to how they looked which seems a little odd.


    • Yeah, I guess that’s why I was wondering if we see such dramatically different distributions when it’s in a lab and a researcher took roughly equivalent pictures of everyone. If we do, then it’s a real thing and maybe photo-only displays don’t work out well for men. If we don’t, then photo selection seems the most likely cause of the skew.

      I’m having a weirdly hard time finding the raw data from such a study though!


      • I should also note that the two choices don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Men might pick worse photos AND women might be less interested in photos.

        Also, it’s worth noting their data is now almost a decade old. I think we’ve changed how we’ve used the internet in the last few years, and everyone’s gotten a little savvier about what they put up/how they perceive what others put up. Since they pulled the post down I doubt they’ll repeat what they did, but it would be interesting to see if everyone still perceives things the same way today.


  3. Doing actual science is hard. Too many are too eager to just slop something together or, worse, intake whatever else someone with a blog slopped together. (No offense… 😉


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