In politics, it’s called the “Obama effect.” When it comes to attraction, you might call it the Rashida Jones effect. Or Halle Berry. Or Aubrey Plaza. Or Derek Jeter.
Like our president, the celebrities we consistently rank among the most beautiful can check at least two boxes under “race” on their census forms. But what about the judgement-prone zone of online dating, where we assess our potential matches first and foremost by their looks? Is our cultural open-mindedness making us more attracted to faces that look different from our own?
A new study presented to the Council on Contemporary Families and published today in the American Sociological Review suggests yes — online daters aren’t always attracted to people who look like themselves. In some instances, multiracial daters are getting a lot of right swipes.
Looking different “could be beneficial rather than a reason to be discriminated against” in the online dating game, said study co-author Ken-Hou Lin, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Examining millions of initial messages sent between straight men and women between 2003 and 2010 on a large U.S. dating site, the researchers found that the premium placed on daters who self-identified as only white wasn’t as high as they originally thought.
Asian-white women got the most attention, with more positive responses to their opening lines from white and Asian men than women who checked only “white” or only “Asian.” (Olivia Munn, we’re looking at you.)
Other findings of note: Hispanic women preferred men who identified as Hispanic-white above all else. Hispanic men were less selective — they liked Hispanic women, white women and Hispanic-white women about the same. White women responded to white men and Asian-white men the most, followed by Hispanic-white men and black-white men.
Among all groups, Lin said men didn’t play racial favorites as much as women did. Except when it comes to black women, who were responded to the least.
That doesn’t surprise D.C. Tinder and Hinge user J.Q., a 24-year-old black woman who agreed to be identified only by her initials. “People sort of like the whole ‘ambiguously ethnic thing’ because it’s still safe,” she says. You can experience new cultures and ethnicities without going so far outside your comfort zone, she said of dating people who are biracial.
She’s even come across profiles of men who explicitly say they’re looking for “exotic” or “mixed” girls. “Why did you feel the need to put that?” she asks. “It’s kind of gross.”
In an OkCupid blog post from last September, co-founder Christian Rudder wrote that racial bias among users may have even gone up slightly over the last five years. While fewer users actually say they prefer one race over the other, Rudder said the data shows their online behavior — i.e. whom they hit on virtually — remains racially split among black and white lines. (The data did not distinguish whether those users identified with more than one race.)
And yet it’s undeniable that this country’s racial landscape is becoming more varied. According to a recent Pew report, nearly 7 percent of U.S. adults identify as two or more races. More than half of respondents said they’d been subjected to racial slurs or jokes, but only 4 percent saw having a mixed racial background as a disadvantage.
In the online dating market, you don’t even have to prove you’re mixed raced to get more attention; just saying so is enough. Ken-Hou Lin said biracial profiles without any photos performed about as well as those profiles with photos. “There’s a certain societal imagination about what mixed-race people should look like,” Lin said, pointing out how pop culture has shaped the way we see uniqueness and differences as attractive.
For J.Q., our app-dater, the majority of dates she’s been on have been with black men. But that’s not to say she wouldn’t date someone of a different race — as long as his profile suggests he’s a decent person. Evidence of a college education also doesn’t hurt. Neither does a good joke.
“If I see, ‘There’s always money in the banana stand,’ ” in someone’s bio, she says, “or another reference to Arrested Development, I’ll probably swipe right.”