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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Filed Under: attractiveness, dating, online dating


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2016 @ 8:54am

    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?.

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