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Online Dating Research:
What Does She Have Over Me?

by Kim Lance, Associate Publisher of Online Dating Magazine

Research explains why some people are more likely to be contacted during online dating than others based on their physical features and social standing.

One of the many mysteries about online dating is why people choose to communicate with one person over another. What is it about Jane that makes her receive 10 emails a week from interested men while Janet receives 3 a month? While much of this has to do with the way a person’s profile is written and his or her interests and ideas, online daters also rely quite a bit on demographic and social factors when making the decision whether or not to email a member or respond to a received email. For this reason, the research article “What Makes You Click: An Empirical Analysis of Online Dating”, by Günter J. Hitsch and Ali Hortaçsu of the University of Chicago and Dan Ariely of MIT, is worth examining.

What Makes You Click: An Empirical Analysis of Online Dating” looks at what sort of demographic attributes (physical features, income, education, etc.) contribute to a better or worse chance of receiving an introductory email from a potential match or positive response to their own introductory email. The researchers examined “socioeconomic and demographic information and a detailed account of the website activities of more than 23,000 users of a major online dating service. 11,390 users were located in the Boston area, and 11,691 users were located in San Diego.” They observed the online dating members’ activities for three and a half months in 2003. The results of this research are very interesting and could potentially give online daters a better understanding of their own odds in the online dating scene.

What Do Online Daters Want?
Before getting into the results, it is important to understand the relationship interests of those people using the online dating used for the study. According to the research data, 39% of people in the research pool had stated on their profile that they were hoping to start a long-term relationship, 26% were “just looking/curious”, while 9% stated that they were specifically looking for a casual relationship. Men overall were more interested in the casual relationship option (14%) than women (4%).

Based on research, the majority of online daters that participate in active emailing and interaction are interested in a serious long-term relationship as opposed to casual hooking up. The researchers suggest that if you take into account that “just looking” may be chosen over long-term relationship options because it sound less committal, more than 75% of all active users are interested in a long-term partner. Also keep in mind that the researchers found those using online dating sites to be typically single, somewhat younger, more educated, and receiving a higher income than the general population.

Knowing that the majority of those exchanging emails over online dating services are interested in forming a long-term relationship, here are some surprising, and perhaps not so surprising, factors that go into which types of people members choose to contact. Remember, this is only examining what goes into an initial contact; assuming that the people are honest in their profiles, this may lead to interactions in person and possibly marriage, but this research project only examined the reasons behind why online daters initially decide to contact another person or respond to a first contact.

Who is Likely to Respond to Emails?
According to the research, men seem to be much more receptive to first contact emails than women. An average looking man has a 40% chance of hearing back from an average looking women while an average woman has a 70% chance of getting a response back from an email sent to an average guy. Good news for ladies, possibly nerve-racking for men.

When comparing extremes – men on the low attractiveness scale who get the courage to contact women who are considered highly attractive – men can expect to hear back from 14% of those women. Also, something that may not come as too much of a surprise to any who have felt rejected, more attractive men and women tend to be picker when deciding who to respond to or whom they contact. The least attractive women are 2-4 times more likely to a send out a first contact email to a man than the most attractive women.

Reasons for Sending the Initial Email
When examining the demographic and socioeconomic factors that go into the selection process during online dating, researchers found that looks were the most important factor (31% for women and 19% for men) with income and education having less of a pull when examined alone, but a combination of factors are most impelling. Below are the details about what features and social standings get the most response.

Long-Term or Short-Term Relationship
One deciding factor in whether or not a member is contacted is whether or not they are interested in a serious relationship or causal relationship. Men who indicate that they are interested in a more casual relationship are contacted less often that those interested in a long-term relationship while women seemed to have the opposite response. Women who indicate that they were seeking a casual relationship received 17% more first contact emails and men received 42% less.

A long understood factor in whether or not a member starts getting emails is if they include a picture with their profile. Those who include a picture get a much larger response than those who don’t. According to this research, women with photos receive more than twice as many emails and men receive about 50% more emails than members who did not post a photo but describe themselves as having “average looks.” This proves that looks play a very important part in online dating, just as they do in traditional dating.

Those members that described themselves as “chiseled” or “toned” got more responses than height-weight proportionate members and those who described themselves as “voluptuous/portly” and “large but shapely” received much fewer.

When taking into account body mass index (BMI) – the height to weight ratio – both men and women have an “ideal” BMI that is most successful, although this differs between genders. Interestingly enough, a BMI of 27 is ideal for men’s online dating success, even though the American Heart Association claims this BMI is slightly overweight. The most successful BMI for women is around 17, which, according to the American Heart Association, is considered underweight. Women with this BMI receive 77% more first contact emails than women in a normal BMI range of 25.

While men usually prefer women of a lower BMI and women prefer slightly larger men, both men and women also appear to have a preference for a partner that is closer to their own BMI.

When it comes to height, women typically contact taller men (6’3” or 6’4” tall men get about 60% more first contact emails than men around 5’7” – 5’8” tall) while men prefer women somewhere between 5’3” and 5’8”, with taller women receiving far fewer emails. Men seem to prefer shorter women and try to avoid women who are taller than them while women prefer men who are taller than themselves and try to steer clear of shorter men.

Hair Color
Men with red hair are less likely to get responses than those with other colored hair and men with curly hair receive about 22% fewer first contact emails than men who describe themselves as having “medium straight hair”.

Blonde women with long straight hair seem to have the best luck for their gender while women with gray or “salt and pepper” hair suffer a sizable penalty. Women with shorter hairstyles have moderately less success.

Only about 64% of men and 51% of women report their income when filling out their online dating profile even though it is an important deciding success factor. Income strongly affects the success of men in receiving first contact emails but is only marginally related to a woman’s success in receiving first contact emails.

Success outcomes for men start to improve quite a bit once income begins to reach above the $50,000 level. The more money a man makes, the higher his rate of success in getting first contact emails. With women, incomes in the $35,000 to $100,000 range fare only slightly better than those with lower incomes but higher incomes above $100,000 don’t seem to improve outcomes.

Although men with larger incomes may receive more emails, women still seem to have a slight distaste for men who are richer than they are and men seem to have distaste for women who are poorer than them. Ideally, similar incomes seem to be preferable.

Education Level
Even though the relationship between online dating outcomes and education is not as distinct as appearance and income, it was still found that higher levels of education increase online success of men but not women. Relative to those men listed as high school graduates, a college degree is associated with an increase of 35% in the number of first contact emails from women, with graduate degrees associated with a similar premium although not much improved from undergraduate degrees.

Women seem to want a man with a similar equivalent of education levels rather than those above much above their own education level. Men with a high school education seem to have a preference for women with a similar education, but men with college or graduate degrees do not seem to base their choices on education level.

The top four most desirable occupations for men to hold are (in order) legal professions, military, firefighters, and health related professions. Manufacturing jobs actually hinder the probability of getting a first response email by about 10% for men. Men were not generally influenced by the occupation a woman had, and men actually seemed to prefer women that were students rather than involved in a profession, but this was only a slight preference.

Any preference to ethnicity varies between different ethnic backgrounds but, taking that into consideration, 38% of all women and 18% of men say that they prefer to meet someone of the same ethnic background as themselves. The research found that members of all four ethnic groups examined did in fact “discriminate” against users belonging to other ethnic groups and women seem to discriminate more. For example, African American and Hispanic men only get about half as many first contact emails from Caucasian women as Caucasian men do while Asian men only get about one fourth as much contact. Asian men and women seem to be least discriminating when pursuing other ethnicities.

Age and History
As probably expected, online daters tend to look for and contact partners that are similar in age to themselves. Men particularly try to stay away from contacting women that are older than them while women try to avoid younger men. Single, never been married, women tend to avoid divorced men while women that are divorced actually prefer a man that has also been though a divorce. Men tend to lean toward these preferences too, although not to the extreme that women do. Men and women with children both prefer to find a partner who also has children but are much less desirable to men or women that do not have children.

Final Thoughts
While the idea that interest is based on physical and socioeconomic factors may seem disheartening, online daters shouldn't give up yet. Yes, its true that factors such as weight, height, and income will most likely always be somewhat of a factor (whether we want to admit it or not), this research does not take into account things like personality traits, sense of humor, friendliness, etc. that are too diverse to accurately measure.

Remember, there are things you can do to improve yourself and your financial situation. For some ideas, read Online Dating Magazine's Self-Improvement section.

Even if you aren’t the tallest, richest, or thinnest, if you can express your positive personality traits well in your profile and have a bright and shining smile in your photo, your chances of meeting your match may be greatly increased. And women, don’t be afraid to make first contact, remember, 70% of women can expect a response from men when they take the initiative and send out the first email!

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