The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Online dating study quantifies what’s ‘out of your league’


Online dating is now one of the primary ways people meet partners, and researchers can use data from dating apps to observe and quantify romantic attraction and pursuit. In other words, all of those terrible online messages and first dates are being donated to science.

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

The study analyzed heterosexual dating markets in an unnamed “popular, free online dating service” in four major U.S. cities: Boston, Chicago, New York and Seattle. The number of users totaled in the hundreds of thousands. User data was anonymous and did not include personal details or message content. Scientists looked at age, ethnicity and education of the users, 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 the analyses, said Elizabeth Bruch, lead author of the study and a sociologist at the University of Michigan. But, Bruch said, 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, measured by the messaging metrics, and men and women contacted potential partners who were on average 25 percent more desirable than they were.

“What would it mean scientifically for someone to be ‘out of your league?’ ” Bruch said. This question, along with many others about mate choice, are now answerable, she said. “There are so many folk theories about dating, and what are the rules of dating, and the strategies that people have,” said Bruch. “It hit us like, oh my God, we can see if this is actually working. People in dating have all these strategies, like you don't call at 10 p.m. on Friday night, but we don't know if that actually matters. These things are knowable. They're not just things you can speculate about with your friends.”

The scientists measured the number of words per initial message and the message response rate. Men wrote more first messages than women did, and women were less likely to respond to a message. Men and women also wrote longer messages to potential dates who were more desirable, the study said. The number of words in a message, however, did not correlate to response, even when controlled for the desirability gap. In other words, a one-word message (let's say, “hiiiii”) was just as likely to get a response as a long, agonized line of Pablo Neruda poetry (I want / To do with you what spring does with a cherry tree"). This raises the obvious, if controversial question: Is it better to just say, “Hey”?

“It seems like 'hey' is the way to go,” Bruch said with a laugh. In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, the time and energy put into that first message may be wasted, but she pointed out that, because the researchers did not have access to the content of the messages, only the number of words, “we know nothing of the wittiness of the messages.” After a pause, she continued: “I'm not a fan of the 'hey' message.”

There was one exception to this. Men in Seattle who wrote longer messages had a higher chance of getting a reply. The study noted that Seattle's dating climate is “unfavorable” for men, with as many as two men per woman, depending on the population. If you are seeking a verbally prolific heterosexual man and great dating odds, you may want to put Seattle on your list.

A few other findings from the study: “Older women are less desirable, while older men are more so,” the authors found. “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.

No one tells you life as a 40-year-old single woman could be this good

Desirable people got more and longer messages overall. “Even though the probability of getting a response drops with a desirability gap, the response rate is still quite a bit above zero,” Bruch said — a cautiously optimistic argument for reaching out to those out-of-reach hotties.

One outlier in the data, described as a "30-year-old woman living in New York,” the scientists nicknamed their “movie star.” She received 1,500 messages, “equivalent to one message every 30 minutes, day and night, for the entire month” of the observing period, the study stated. The study did not state how this woman's life may have been affected by hourly “Hey” messages.

“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, pointed out that 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 like humor or trustworthiness are hard to measure online, Fisher said.

Fisher, who is also the chief scientist at, had several pieces of specific advice for online dating, based on that company's user research. Most people do not appreciate their dates looking at their phones. We're visual animals, she said, so picture choice is important (she recommends uploading six photos). But perhaps the most helpful advice was, “if what you're doing isn't working, change your strategy.”

As for me, I am moving to Seattle.

Read more:

Does my sweaty T-shirt turn you on? At a pheromone party, singles try to match using only their noses.

Cosmo’s former editor wants you to treat your love life like it’s a diet

Yes, you can leave a first date after 20 minutes. Here’s how.