You’re at a party and you see someone cute across the room. They glance at you, maybe even smile for a second, then carry on with their conversation. You feel the room shrink, your heart rate quicken, your face go red: You’re crushing on this stranger, hard. But then the sensible part of your brain tells you to forget it: That person’s way, way out of your league.
Wait a second, you counter: Do dating “leagues” even exist?
At this point, Elizabeth Bruch, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, crashes in to your thought process (and this news article). Yep, she says. Leagues do seem to exist. But you’re not alone in trying to escape yours: “Three-quarters, or more, of people are dating aspirationally,” she says. And according to a new study, users of online-dating sites spend most of their time trying to contact people “out of their league.”
In fact, most online-dating users tend to message people exactly 25 percent more desirable than they are.
Bruch would know. She’s spent the past few years studying how people make decisions and pursue partners on online-dating sites, using exclusive data from the dating sites themselves. “There’s so much folk wisdom about dating and courtship, and very little scientific evidence,” she told me recently. “My research comes out of realizing that with these large-scale data sets, we can shed light on a lot of these old dating aphorisms.”
In the new study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Bruch and her colleagues analyzed thousands of messages exchanged on a “popular, free online-dating service” between more than 186,000 straight men and women. They looked only at four metro areas—New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle—and only at messages from January 2014.
Imagine for a second that you are one of the users Bruch and her colleagues studied—in fact, imagine that you are a very desirable user. Your specific desirability rank would have been generated by two figures: whether other desirable people contacted you, and whether other desirable people responded when you contacted them. If you contacted a much less desirable person, their desirability score would rise; if they contacted you and you replied, then your score would fall.
The team had to analyze both first messages and first replies, because, well, men usually make the first move. “A defining feature of heterosexual online dating is that, in the vast majority of cases, it is men who establish the first contact—more than 80 percent of first messages are from men in our data set,” the study says. But “women reply very selectively to the messages they receive from men—their average reply rate is less than 20 percent—so women’s replies … can give us significant insight about who they are interested in.”
The team combined all that data by using the PageRank algorithm, the same software that helps inform Google’s search results. It found that—insofar as dating “leagues” are not different tiers of hotness, but a single ascending hierarchy of desirability—then they do seem to exist in the data. But people do not seem universally locked into them—and they can occasionally find success escaping from theirs.
The key, Bruch said, is that “persistence pays off.”
“Reply rates [to the average message] are between zero percent and 10 percent,” she told me. Her advice: People should note those extremely low reply rates and send out more greetings.
Michael Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at Stanford University who was not connected to this study, agreed that persistence was a good strategy. “The idea that persistence pays off makes sense to me, as the online-dating world has a wider choice set of potential mates to choose from,” he told me in an email. “The greater choice set pays dividends to people who are willing to be persistent in trying to find a mate.”
Of the study as a whole, he said: “I think its conclusions are robust and its methodologies are sound.”
Yet what also emerges from the data is a far more depressing idea of “leagues” than many joking friends would suppose. Across the four cities and the thousands of users, consistent patterns around age, race, and education level emerge. White men and Asian women are consistently more desired than other users, while black women rank anomalously lower.
Bruch said that race and gender stereotypes often get mixed up, with a race acquiring gendered connotations. “Asian is coded as female, so that’s why Asian women get so much market power and Asian men get so little,” she told me. “For black men and women, it’s the opposite.”
But “what we are seeing is overwhelmingly the effect of white preferences,” she cautioned. “This site is predominantly white, 70 percent white. If this was a site that was 20 percent white, we may see a totally different desirability hierarchy.”
“Other people have done research using data from online-dating sites, and found similar racial and gender hierarchies,” said Rosenfeld, the Stanford professor.
And Bruch emphasized that the hierarchy did not just depend on race, age, and education level: Because it is derived from user behavior, it “captures whatever traits people are responding to when they pursue partners. This will include traits like wittiness, genetic factors, or whatever else drives people to message,” she said.
Here are seven other not entirely happy takeaways from Bruch’s study:
- In the study, men’s desirability peaks at age 50. But women’s desirability starts high at age 18 and falls throughout their lifespan.
How Age Affects Online-Dating Desirability Among Heterosexual Men and Women
“I mean, everybody knows—and as a sociologist, it’s been shown—that older women have a harder time in the dating market. But I hadn’t expected to see their desirability drop off from the time they’re 18 to the time they’re 65,” Bruch told me.
“But I was also surprised to see how flat men’s desirability was over the age distribution,” she said. “For men, it peaks around age 40 or 50. Especially in New York.”
- New York is a men’s market, at least according to this particular study.
It’s not just that older men are considered most desirable in New York.
“New York is a special case for men,” Bruch told me. “It’s the market with the highest fraction of women. But it’s also about it being an incredibly dense market.”
- Seattle is a women’s market—and also the only place where men succeed by sending longer opening messages.
“Seattle presents the most unfavorable dating climate for men, with as many as two men for every woman in some segments,” the study says.
Across all four cities, men and women generally tended to send longer messages to people who were more desirable than them. Women, especially, deployed this strategy.
But the only place it paid off—and the only people for whom it worked with statistically significant success—were men in Seattle. The longest messages in the study were sent by Seattle men, the study says,“and only Seattle men experience a payoff to writing longer messages.”
- Women’s prospects dim not only as they age, but as they achieve the highest level of education.
A more educated man is almost always more desirable, on average: Men with postgraduate degrees outperform men with bachelor’s degrees; men with bachelor’s degrees beat high-school graduates.
“But for women, an undergraduate degree is most desirable,” the study says. “Postgraduate education is associated with decreased desirability among women.”
How Education Affects Online-Dating Desirability Among Heterosexual Men and Women
- Men did not find more success when they sent happy messages.
Across all four cities, men tended to use less positive language when messaging more desirable women. They may have stumbled upon this strategy through trial and error because “in all four cities, men experience slightly lower reply rates when they write more positively worded messages.”
- Almost no one messages users less desirable than they are.
Most people seem to know their position on the hierarchy because they most contact people who rank the same. “The most common behavior for both men and women is to contact members of the opposite sex who on average have roughly the same ranking as themselves,” Bruch and her colleagues write.
But the overall distribution is skewed because “a majority of both sexes tend to contact partners who are more desirable than themselves on average—and hardly any users contact partners who are significantly less desirable.”
- Your online-dating experience is not as bad as this poor woman’s in New York.
“The most popular individual in our four cities, a 30-year-old woman living in New York, received 1504 messages during the period of observation,” the study says. This is “equivalent to one message every 30 min, day and night, for the entire month.” Yikes.