LOS ANGELES (CN) – The majority of online daters slide into the direct messages of potential mates who are more attractive or desirable than themselves – often with very little success, according to a study on heterosexual online dating networks in four major U.S. cities.
The study published Wednesday in the medical journal Science Advances found competition for mates created hierarchies of desirability – or “leagues” – in Chicago, New York, Seattle and Boston. At the beginning of online courtship, the most attractive people were contacted more often and received longer messages.
Researchers called this the “first, and perhaps shallowest, phase of courtship.”
They compared “desirability scores” against a user’s attributes and found correlations between age, education level and ethnicity. Older men up to the age of 50 tended to have higher desirability scores than younger men, while women’s desirability scores tended to decline from ages 18 to 60.
“There can be a lot of heterogeneity in terms of who is desirable to whom,” said Elizabeth Bruch, a sociologist and the study’s lead author.
Previous dating research showed that as people spend time together, their unique character traits become more important relative to physical attributes, Wednesday’s study said.
In a statement released Wednesday, Bruch and co-author Mark Newman said their project is the first, large-scale analysis of people’s strategic behavior during online courtship.
“We have so many folk theories about how dating works that have not been scientifically tested,” Bruch said. “Data from online dating gives us a window on the strategies that people use to find partners.”
Bruch and Newman study complex systems at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and belong to the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute.
The pair based an individual’s position in the attractiveness hierarchy on the number of messages they received, the length of the messages and the desirability of the senders.
The most popular user in the four cities, a 30-year-old woman living in New York, received 1,504 messages during the study period – about one message every 30 minutes for a month, the study found.
“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,” said Newman.
If the message sender was deemed to be attractive, the receiver was “presumably more desirable,” according to the study. Meanwhile, because most users send the majority of their messages “up” the hierarchy – out of their league – a lot of messages go unanswered.
Though it’s a common strategy, sending longer messages to “more desirable prospects” may not be particularly helpful, the study said.
Of the four cities analyzed, the notable exception was Seattle, where researchers observed a payoff for users who wrote longer messages. In Chicago, New York and Boston, longer messages did not increase a person’s chances of receiving a reply, researchers said.
Not getting enough replies – or receiving none at all – is a common complaint among online dating website users.
The study found, however, 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,” Bruch said. “There may be sub-markets in which people who would not necessarily score as high by our measures could still have an awesome and fulfilling dating life.”