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Better Data Could Mean Better Dating

Dating apps like Bumble and Tinder can help singles couple up. But online dating is also great for scientists.

“There’s so much folk wisdom about dating and very little hard evidence.” Elizabeth Bruch is a computational social scientist at the University of Michigan who recently used online dating data to answer this question: “What does it mean for someone to be out of your league, and is there a way that we can study that using the techniques of network science?”

Bruch and her colleague Mark Newman studied who swapped messages with whom on a popular online dating platform, in the month of January 2014. They categorized users by desirability using pagerank, one of the algorithms behind search technology. Essentially: if you receive a dozen messages from desirable users, you must be more desirable than someone who receives the same number of messages from average users.

Then they asked: how far “out of their league” do online daters tend to go, when pursuing a partner? “I think people are optimistic realists.”

In other words: they found that both men and women tended to pursue mates just 25 percent more desirable than themselves. “So they’re being optimistic but they’re also taking into account their own relative position within this overall desirability hierarchy.”

All the graphs and charts are in the journal Science Advances. [Elizabeth E. Bruch and M. E. J. Newman, Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets]

And the study did have a few more lessons for people on the market: “I think one of the take home messages from this study is that women could probably afford to be more aspirational in their mate pursuit.”

They also found that both men and women–but especially women–write longer messages to more desirable partners. So are those wasted words? “What was interesting is it doesn’t seem to pay off for women. The only group for whom this pays off is men in Seattle.”

And for everyone else, the big picture is this: “We don’t have to kind of stab around in the dark, or behave based on some beliefs or norms about what is appropriate. We can actually know if our strategies are working and adjust our behavior accordingly.”

In other words–better data could mean better dating.

–Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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