Sevens Marry Sevens: Is Online Dating Making Mixed-Attractiveness Couples More Rare?

from the hot-math dept

We don’t talk a great deal about online dating here at Techdirt, which is actually kind of strange, because it’s a digital evolution of a sort. But the very good Priceonomics site recently had a fascinating post about some of the visible impacts the prevalence of online dating is producing, namely that anecdotal evidence suggests that it is making so-called “mixed-attractiveness couples” more rare.

The post starts off by dispelling the myth that opposites attract. Instead, studies seem to suggest that relationships tend to form mostly within our own social circles, class circles, and within our general realm of physical attractiveness. The vulgar way of putting this has always been: a seven will date a seven, a six might date an eight, but a two will never marry a ten. The exceptions to this rule appear to be based around how long two people have known each other before entering a romantic relationship.

There is an exception, however, to this seeming rule that people always date equally attractive people: The longer two people know each other before they start dating, the more likely it is that a 3 will date a 6, or a 7 will marry a 10. Which is interesting to think about as dating apps, which match strangers up for dates, take over the dating world. Because if more and more people meet their future spouse on a first date, the mixed-attractiveness couple might just go extinct.

That conclusion is a bit simplistic, of course, as there are many other things that enter into the attractiveness equation. But it would be silly to suggest that physical attraction isn’t a primary motivator most of the time as far as first impressions go. That’s the whole point of the exception to the rule: a person may later learn to be attracted to someone that they were not physically attracted to from the jump. But if these first impressions are based primarily on dating sites and apps where physical appearance is so much easier to discern compared with personality traits? Then certainly a greater weight on physicality will produce less divergence of that trait amongst couples that choose to enter into relationships.

This dynamic interested Lucy Hunt, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who decided to investigate “how time might affect how similarly attractive couple members are to one another.” Working with two psychologists, Hunt looked at 167 couples who participated in a long-term study at Northwestern. They asked each couple how long they’d known each other before they started dating, and they recruited people to watch videotapes of the couples and rate each individual’s physical attractiveness.

The researchers speculated that people who had known their partner before they started dating would break the rule of assortative mating. And that’s just what they found. Among couples who met when they started dating, both people were about equally attractive. But among friends-first couples, 3s dated 7s and 5s married 8s.

They also did an experiment within a classroom, asking students at the start of a term to rate their classmates’ desirability generally and again three months later. At the start of the term, the class generally agreed on who was attractive and who wasn’t, but three months later the ratings amongst the class showed a much greater delta. They got to know their classmates better and that affected the ratings. Common sense, right? Except when dating apps come into play, the sorting happens before anyone gets to know anyone. Many dating sites actually incorporate matching people’s attractiveness into the matches they offer to users.

The swipe-left, swipe-right dating app Tinder, for example, is known for making matches based on an internal attractiveness ranking it calculates for each of its users. As Sean Rad, the founder of Tinder, has explained to Fast Company, Tinder calls each user’s ranking his or her “elo score.” The term comes from the world of professional chess, where elo scores are used to rank players. If an average player beats a grandmaster, her score increases significantly. If a great player loses to an even better player, his elo score only drops a few points.

Tinder’s approach is not unique. The founders of the Dating Ring, a service profiled by the podcast “Startup”, have talked about ranking users’ attractiveness from one to ten to match them up. “Studies show that people tend to date people of similar levels of attractiveness, and our whole goal is to try to increase the probability that two people will meet up,” Dating Ring CEO Lauren Kay told the hosts of Startup. “We match people within one attractiveness point.”

And with the trend in dating being a shorter time between meeting someone and dating them, with dating sites and apps playing a key role in this shift, matching people based on physical desirability because that’s how it tends to work outside of dating sites becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The algorithms will reinforce this by trimming people’s pool of candidates to their own desirability class, and we might see the end of mixed-attractiveness couples generally speaking.

Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. I’m married and never did any online dating at all, so I have zero experience with it. I do know that if I were a user of any of these sites, I would feel potentially cheated out of meeting great candidates because the algorithm thought I was too attractive or ugly to meet them. But that ultimately doesn’t matter, as the trends show that online dating isn’t going anywhere, so we might just all have to get used to seeing synced up couples from a physical standpoint.

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Comments on “Sevens Marry Sevens: Is Online Dating Making Mixed-Attractiveness Couples More Rare?”

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Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: 10 + 1

There’s this idea floating about in our common id that we’re not supposed to date or marry out of our “class.” Therefore you tend to see people rated one being subtly chastised for having the nerve to even seek out a ten, then “unfairly” succeed in landing him or her.

It’s framed as either “What a gold-digger” or “He’s punching above his weight, isn’t he?”

It’s basically jealousy tinged with a nagging feeling that we might have got someone better than our current spouse if we’d held out. And yes, it’s every bit as horrible and mean-spirited as it sounds.

Whatever (profile) says:

I think one of the things missing from the discussion is how shallow the relationships are. If you base your relationships on how someone looks rather than who they are, then you will be sorely disappointed at some point as they get old and ugly, like just about everyone does.

Luring someone into a date with a “hot picture” goes back to my Bubbe trying to set me up with a “nice traditional jewish girl” and flashing a picture of a girl with a nice smile and rather pronounced chest. I met her in person, and well, there was nothing there. It didn’t matter how hot the picture was, reality kicked in pretty quick – and this was long before dating apps were around.

Dan J. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think one of the things missing from the discussion is how shallow the relationships are. If you base your relationships on how someone looks rather than who they are, then you will be sorely disappointed at some point as they get old and ugly, like just about everyone does.

The discussion doesn’t say that the relationship is based entirely or even largely on physical appearance. It simply says that the physical attractiveness within the relationships tend to be symmetrical. In order to develop a deep relationship based on something other than physicality, you have to get to know someone. But before you can get to know someone, you have to meet them. And if everyone you meet (off the dating site) is reasonably close to your own attractiveness, then the only people you have a chance to develop a relationship with are inevitably going to be similar in attractiveness to you.

Anonymous Blowhard says:

Lucky for you

Not to worry my friends. There are plenty of less attractive people you’ll get to meet.

People on dating sites lie A LOT. Men say they are taller. Women who use dating sites say subtract two inches off. Women lie about their weight. Men who use dating sites say add 15 pounds. If they’re over 40 it’s common for both sexes to shave years off their age. They also post photos taken many years or even decades ago.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sevens Marry Sevens… and Wizards marry none!
I’ll be letting myself out.

On topic the whole grading thing just reeks of objectification and jealousy.

True all people have different degrees of attractiveness.
But calling someone “a 10” is pretty much codeword for “yeah, I’d f’k that”.

I say let adults make their own choices, and if that former Victoria’s Secret model is dating that fat upper-middle class guy or viceversa who cares?

Besides “a 10” can always “get” anyone lower than them. Not so true in reverse so there probably must be something going on right?.

Johan says:

The other way around

I’d argue that the opposite could also be true. It is certainly possible to build a dating profile where you might appear even better looking than in real life, by using the right images and so on (I read an article about it on this site in swedish). Then when finding an actual date, the success depends a lot on how you carry yourself, and from there you could get to know each other better each time you meet. That way, there will be no decrease in the amount of “mixed attractiveness couples”, rather the other way around.

Bill says:

Maybe so, maybe not

Indeed, there are many dating sites which help you to find your match according to your appearance, but not every system uses attractiveness as the main criteria.
It also depends on the goal each user of these sites has. If the user is only looking for a short-term relationship, then the statement of “mixed-attractiveness couples” extinction may sound true to me, as if you only search for pleasure, you pay more attention to the appearance and less to other criteria which will be shown up only after being together for some time.
But if you are in search for your soul mate via online dating sites, you may become pickier in questions of your potential mate’s behaviour, interests and so on. In this case, looking at the online dating sites, such as, I see many rather young and attractive women looking for men with a good character as the main criteria.

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