Modern Mating

When Technology and the Sexes Collide

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Lake Wobegon Effect

In a 2004 study of online dating practices by Guenter Hitsch, Ali Hortacsu and Dan Ariely (three economists), the researchers found a strong relationship between men’s self-reported income (i.e., how much they say they earn) and their success on the site as measured by the number of email approaches they received. Those men with college and graduate degrees were also approached more often than their less-educated counterparts. Women, on the other hand, were more successful the more attractive they were.

The researchers also found something quite fascinating. As in Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average, a large percentage of both the men and women rated themselves as at least “above average” looking. Some 67% of men in Boston and 71% of women in Boston said they were “above average” or “very good looking”; 31% of men and 28% of women said they were “average”; while less than 1% of each gender described themselves as having “less than average” looks ( some people did not report their looks). Having lived in Boston, I know what the locals look like – and they are not overwhelmingly good looking. Unless dating sites attract an unusually handsome population, the prospective daters are very generous in their self-descriptions.

As these descriptions of appearance become less and less useful in screening, many people will only look at profiles that contain photos. The researchers found that those women who post photos receive twice as many inquiries as the women who post no pictures, and those men who post photos receive 50% more inquiries. Given the importance of photos, it is no surprise that services have sprung up to make sure that a dater’s picture is enticing. There are services like LookBetterOnline.com which bills itself as an “easy and economical way to get great new photos for your online dating profile.” It is a network of photographers in 6,000 cities who will provide daters with 12 headshots for $129. These photos promise to “deliver emails, date offers and fantastic matches”. It’s “Glamor Shots” for Internet daters.

Since it is much more difficult to verify income than it is to verify attractiveness, this is another area of dater exaggeration. In Boston, the researchers found that 12% of the dating service respondents claimed to have incomes over $100,000. However, only 8% of Boston residents and 8% of Internet users have incomes over $100,000. Perhaps the affluent are drawn to Internet dating sites? More likely, people overstate their incomes. While such exaggeration has little effect on the success of women (men seem not to care how much a woman earns, men just don’t want to date women who earn too little or too much), it could have a huge impact on a man’s online dating prospects. (What next - W-2s as part of a dating profile?)

Internet personal ads reflect profound societal biases in mate selection. The statistics show that women look for men who have means, and men seek out women who are attractive (and who can prove it with a photo). And both genders are willing to finesse the truth to achieve their goals.