Most online daters pursue mates more desirable than themselves, study finds

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Don’t say online daters are out of their league. A new study finds that most people who use dating websites and apps actively pursue those they feel are more desirable than they are.

These conclusions are based on an analysis of online daters in four major U.S. cities, according to researchers from the University of Michigan.

The research shows the majority of online daters contact potential mates who are about 25% more desirable than themselves. Online dating network users even tailor their messaging and contact strategies when reaching out to those perceived as out of their league, or what the authors refer to as higher on the hierarchy of desirability. For example, users typically send longer messages to more desirable contacts — a strategy the authors warn doesn’t improve one’s odds of getting a response, interestingly.

“We have so many folk theories about how dating works that have not been scientifically tested,” says lead author Elizabeth Bruch, an associate professor of sociology and complex systems and a researcher in the Population Studies Center at the university’s Institute for Social Research, in a media release. “Data from online dating gives us a window on the strategies that people use to find partners.”

The researchers applied their algorithm to data from users of a particular dating site in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. This is the first large-scale analysis to identify and isolate hierarchies of desirability in online dating data. Bruch and her team rated users’ desirability by developing a ranking algorithm based on the number of messages a user receives and the desirability of the senders. So people who receive messages from users considered desirable are thus viewed as more desirable themselves.

“Rather than relying on guesses about what people find attractive, this approach allows us to define desirability in terms of who is receiving the most attention and from whom,” explains co-author Mark Newman, a professor of physics and complex systems.

The study also shows that because online daters often reach out to users more desirable than themselves, they’re often left with unanswered messages. But that doesn’t mean people should necessarily avoid contacting someone potentially out of his or her league.

“I think a common complaint when people use online dating websites is they feel like they never get any replies,” says Bruch. “This can be dispiriting. But even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21 percent of people who engage in this aspirational behavior do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off.”

As for what makes someone more desirable, age seems to be a big factor. Older men up to age 50 tend to have higher desirability scores than the younger bachelors, whereas younger women are more desirable than older users.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

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