The online dating site OkCupid asks its clients to rate each other’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 5. When men rated the women, the median score was about 3 and the ratings followed a bell curve – a few really attractive women and an equal number of women rated as unattractive.
But when women rated men, the results were quite different. The median score was between 1 and 2. Only 1 in 6 of the guys was rated as having above average looks. Either the guys who go to places like OkCupid, Tinder and other sites are disproportionately homely, or women have unforgiving eyes.
Looks, unsurprisingly, dominate online dating. But I learned some details from “Dataclysm,” the book by Christian Rudder, who is the co-founder and president of OkCupid.
There’s a gigantic superstar effect. Women who are rated in the top 5 percent of attractiveness get a vast majority of the approaches. The bottom 95 percent get much less. For men, looks barely matter at all unless you are in the top 3 percent or so. The hunks get barraged with approaches.
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It’s better to have a polarizing profile than a bland one. People who generate high levels of disapproval – because they look like goths or bikers or just weird – often also generate higher levels of enthusiasm.
Racial bias is prevalent. When Asian men are looking at Asian women they rate them as 18 percent more attractive than average. But when they are looking at black women, they rate them as 27 percent less attractive. White and Latino men downgrade black women by nearly the same percentage. White, Latino and Asian women have similar preferences.
When people start texting or tweeting to each other, they don’t turn into a bunch of Einsteins. Rudder looked into the most common words and phrases used on Twitter. For men they include: good bro, ps4, my beard, in nba, hoopin and off-season. For women they include: my nails done, mani pedi, retail therapy, and my belly button.
People who date online are not shallower or vainer than those who don’t. Research suggests they are broadly representative. It’s just that they’re in a specific mental state. They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people. They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person. They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work. OkCupid took down the pictures one day. The people who interacted on this day exchanged contact info at twice the rate as on a regular day.
The dating sites have taken the information available online and tried to use it to match up specific individuals. They’ve failed. An exhaustive review of the literature by Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern and others concluded, “No compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work.” That’s because what creates a relationship can’t be expressed in data or photographs. Being in love can’t be done by a person in a self-oriented mindset, asking: Does this choice serve me? Online dating is fascinating because it is more or less the opposite of its object: love.
When online daters actually meet, an entirely different mindset has to kick in. If they’re going to be open to a real relationship, they have to stop asking where this person rates in comparison to others and start asking, can we lower the boundaries between self and self. They have to stop thinking in individual terms and start feeling in rapport terms.
Basically, they have to take the enchantment leap. This is when something dry and utilitarian erupts into something passionate, inescapable and devotional. Sometimes a student becomes enraptured by the beauty of math, and becomes a mathematician. Soldiers doing the drudgery of boot camp are gradually bonded into a passionate unit, for which they will risk their lives. Anybody who has started a mere job and found in it a vocation has taken the enchantment leap.
In love, of course, the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. The people involved move from selfishness to service, from prudent thinking to poetic thinking, from a state of selection to a state of need, from relying on conscious thinking to relying on their own brilliant emotions.
When you look at all the people looking for love and vocation today, you realize we live in a culture and an online world that encourages a very different mind-set; in a technical culture in which humanism, religion and the humanities, which are the great instructors of enchantment, are not automatically central to life.
I have to guess some cultures are more fertile for enchantment – that some activities, like novel-reading or music-making, cultivate a skill for it, and that building a capacity for enchantment is, these days, a countercultural act and a practical and fervent need.