Online dating is one of the primary ways people meet partners these days, and now all of those terrible online messages and first dates are being donated to science. Researchers are using data from dating apps to observe and quantify romantic attraction and pursuit.

A study in the journal Science Advances described “a hierarchy of desirability” in the messaging tactics of online daters. It also found that men and women messaged potential partners who were on average 25 percent more attractive than they were.

The study analyzed heterosexual dating markets on an unnamed “popular, free online dating service” in four major U.S. cities: Boston, Chicago, New York and Seattle. It looked at hundreds of thousands of users. Their data were anonymous and did not include personal details or message content. Scientists looked at users’ age, ethnicity and education, and they quantified the messages exchanged through the service. Desirability was defined by the number of messages someone received as well as the desirability of the people sending those messages.

The study included only heterosexual users to simplify analyses, Burch said, but the research methods could be used for other groups.

Some previous studies have shown that ethnicity has an effect on desirability, but others have shown that it does not matter. In this study, white men and Asian women ranked highest for desirability.

“What would it mean scientifically for someone to be ‘out of your league?’” asked Elizabeth Burch, lead author of the study and a sociologist at the University of Michigan. This question, along with many others about mate choice, are now answerable, she said.

The scientists measured the number of words per initial message and the message response rate. Men wrote more first messages than women, and women were less likely to respond. Men and women also wrote longer messages to potential dates who were more desirable, the study said.

A few other study findings: “Older women are less desirable, while older men are more so. Postgraduate education is associated with decreased desirability among women.” Women’s desirability peaked at the youngest age possible to join the dating app, 18, and declined until age 60. Men’s desirability increased until 50. It is important to note, particularly for everyone who’s not an 18-year-old woman or a middle-aged white man, that the study results were based on averages, and there is a wide range in what people are looking for in a date.

“What can be tricky about studying attraction is that so many things are subjective,” said Lucy Hunt, a social psychologist at Purdue University who was not involved in the study. Online dating shows us who is available, but Hunt warned against expecting it to do more than that. You have to meet people face to face, she said.

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute who was not involved in the study, said these are not really dating apps. They’re “introducing apps.”

“The only real algorithm is your own brain. Where you meet him (or her) doesn’t matter. On a park bench, online” or other places. The app can set you up with someone who might seem perfect, but traits such as humor or trustworthiness are hard to measure online, Fisher said.


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