Published June 19, 2012
Cupid on Trial: A 4-month Online Dating Experiment Using 10 Fictional Singletons
Is online dating a different experience for men than it is for women?
To find out, I conducted a 4-month experiment in the US and UK using 10 dummy dating profiles.
Here’s what happened…
Only eating and sleeping could be said to have a stronger grasp on the steering wheel of our daily behaviour than the thing in our heads that is constantly urging us to find love and have sex. But even an insatiable appetite and overwhelming tiredness are no match for the sudden arrival (or breakdown) of pure romantic love, or unbridled sexual lust. These are, after all, the states of mind that inspired every one of our direct ancestors to relentlessly pursue love and sex until they succeeded at least once in getting their genes into a new generation. We are each the product of an unbroken string of successful fuckers and lovers, so it’s no wonder fucking and loving pervade our thoughts as completely as they do.
The advent of online dating, then, must have seemed like an incredible idea. Whereas in the past the pool of single men a woman could potentially meet and attract was limited by who she happened to physically be around during daily life, now it was exponentially larger. Now the number of men she could date was limited only by how far she would eventually be willing to travel to spend time with them in person. Dozens of suitors turned into thousands, or even millions.
However, things turned out to be more complicated than that. Just as freshly-online businesses, expecting to amass untold fortunes in a new, global market, found themselves in competition with internet businesses that they would never have otherwise had to compete with, so too did online daters face the prospect of having to stand out as special and attractive amongst a much larger pool of singletons than they were used to. Whereas before a man just needed to be the best looking guy at work to get a date with a colleague, now he needed to be in the top 10% of all men to get a date with one of the women in his city.
The expanded horizons offered by online dating don’t equal unrestricted access to a ready and waiting list of beautiful people.
Every man and woman online still has criteria that must be met by people who want to date him or her, and every guy and girl is still in direct competition with every other person of their gender. In that case, then, is the acquisition of love and sex online just as easy or difficult for men and woman as it is offline? Or does this new social arena amplify the dating frustrations each sex has struggled with since the dawn of time?
To find out, I decided to peek behind the curtain and get a glimpse into what online dating is like for men and women who are of varying levels of physical attractiveness.
Things were about to get sneaky.
How many unsolicited messages do men get compared to women? And what difference does their physical attractiveness make to each man and woman’s success?
Phrased another way, do women have it a lot easier than men, and do hot people in general have it the easiest? I know what you might be thinking: yes and yes. It’s hardly the unsolved question of the century. However, at this early stage I didn’t know exactly how big the gap between men and women might be, or how different a relatively unattractive person’s online dating experience might be compared to someone more blessed in the looks department. Nor did I know what to expect to see in the unsolicited messages, because men rarely get to see the messages women receive from hopeful boys, and women rarely witness the reverse. I’d have a privileged, and somewhat immoral, view into both.
Morals aside (where would space travel be without the unpleasant demise of Laika the Soviet space dog?), I set about creating ten dummy dating profiles on the world’s fastest growing online dating site: OKCupid.
I’ve used OKCupid for several months for my own love/sex life, so I was very familiar with how its system works. There are three main elements to having a presence on there: your written profile, your photos and the
inane interesting questions you’re supposed to answer to help the matching system pair you with likeminded people. It’s a pretty flawed concept and one that I’m sure is only there to help them serve you relevant advertising, or make you feel like you have a hand in sorting through the horde of freaks that inevitably lurk in the shadows.
Anyway, for each of the ten dummy accounts, I answered 25 of OKCupid’s questions in exactly the same way. The questions ranged from the obvious to the ridiculous.
I also gave the ten accounts very similar sounding usernames, again, so that nothing would immediately differentiate them from each other (I wanted the photos to do that, because it was the influence of gender and appearance on the number of unsolicited messages received that I was interested in).
For the next element of the accounts, the written part, I created one single solution: a bunch of answers to OKCupid’s default sections that ALL of the ten dummy accounts would have. In other words, all ten would have the same written profile, once again so that this part of the accounts wouldn’t sway people towards or away from sending messages.
The written profile I created didn’t give any clues as to the owner’s gender and it included a few ‘hooks’—mentions of party tricks and whatnot—to give people something to talk about in their messages.
Now for the interesting bit: the profile pictures. I selected five photos for the boys and five for the women that depicted men and women who I personally thought varied in physical attractiveness.
Then I gave the ten photos to three other people (male and female) who would act as independent judges of the girls’ and boys’ looks by ranking them from best looking to…not the best looking. Pleasantly, for the experiment, all three judges agreed on the rankings.
At this point, I had ten profiles with similar sounding usernames, all with the same answers to 25 questions, with the same written profile and personal stats (all heights consistent, the same level of education, etc.), and each account had a different photo of a man or woman.
I then herded our collection of fake people onto Deception Airways and pretend-flew them to five different US cities, where they would be allocated in pairs. The best looking man and woman in one city, second best boy and girl in another, and so on.
Then I waited.
I must admit, I was excited. If you ever want to feel like a small-time god (albeit a somewhat meddling, devious one), I recommend creating multiple dating profiles.
Before we get into the results of this first stage of the experiment, here are a couple of interesting online dating facts that hint at the complexity of meeting people online.
• While online daters rate their photos as relatively accurate, independent judges rate approximately 1/3 of the photographs as not accurate.
• Female photographs are judged as less accurate than male photographs, and are more likely to be older, to be retouched or taken by a professional photographer.
• Men lie more about their height, and women lie more about their weight, with people farther from the average lying more.
• In a survey of online dating users, over 80% of participants registered concerns that others misrepresent themselves.
To be fair, my tinkering with the system wasn’t really helping with that last statistic. Anyway, science and all that! Onto the results.
After being online for 24 hours, the ten accounts between them had amassed 90 messages. Remember, for this experiment, it was all about unsolicited messages—I sent no messages to anyone and never replied to ones received.
As you can see from the graph above, the women got many times more messages than the men.
• Each woman received at least one message, but the two best looking women received 581% more messages than the other three combined.
• Only one man received any messages.
If this was a sign of things to come, then it seemed a sure thing that the women would get messages without any extra effort on their part, whereas the men’s inboxes would be markedly less full.
The above graph shows the results after the profiles had spent 168 hours online.
• The most contacted woman had almost 17 times more messages in a week than the most contacted man.
• Three of the men had no messages, despite their profiles being viewed about 25 times between them.
• The women’s messages outnumbered the men’s 17 to 1 (mostly thanks to the two best looking women).
• The two best looking men received 5 fewer messages than the 3rd and 4th best looking women.
In summary, when it comes to receiving unsolicited messages based on gender and photos alone, women wipe the floor with men, and very attractive women sandblast the floor with the fellas. They kill. Their inboxes heave with hellos and how are yous.
To make sure it wasn’t just an American thing, I refuelled the Deception Airways jet and relocated all of the profiles to the United Kingdom for a much longer stay. Four months in fact.
By this point it was obvious that women on OKCupid, and probably all dating sites, get a lot of messages from men, and if a woman happens to be very pretty, she’s swamped with attention.
This is not breaking news, because most women who have tried online dating quickly discover what it’s like for females online. It’s the same as offline, except exaggerated. If they are hot, the girls can pick and choose which men they interact with. If the men are hot, they will get some unsolicited messages, but the attention they receive will be several orders of magnitude less than their female counterparts.
The worst looking men and women, unfortunately, are in a similar boat to each other—the ‘Not Much Attention’ boat, which is scheduled to arrive at Love Island, but no one can be sure of when.
I left the 10 profiles dotted around England for over 4 months while I spent time on other projects, like analyzing the last words of 478 death row prisoners, then I returned to the accounts to see what had happened in my absence.
As you can see, the results after 4 months echo those from a week into the experiment.
• The women as a group received over 20 times more messages than the men.
• The two most attractive women received 83% of all messages.
• The two most attractive women probably would have received several thousand more if their inboxes hadn’t have reached maximum capacity.
• It took 2 months, 13 days for the most popular woman’s inbox to fill up. At the current rate it would take the most popular man 2.3 years to fill up his.
Apart from seeing the difference in message volume, this experiment also allowed me to see the content of messages received and sent by men and women. My impression, after reading several hundred in the women’s inboxes, is that most men compliment the attractive women a lot, they make reference to something in the woman’s profile (you would not believe how many times men mentioned the party tricks and ‘Arrow’ the cheetah from the generic profile I wrote), or they ask a general question about travel or something equally boring.
They are rarely, if ever, imaginative and I sympathise with any woman who has struggled to find any diamonds amongst the rough myriad of messages she is bombarded with each and every day. Then again, what can a man say that hasn’t been said before?
He has to make a good impression and show he’s attractive without coming off as a creep, without looking needy and without saying the same thing as every other chump.
What is the perfect message a man could send to a woman to maximise his chance of blowing her away and creating interest?
If this experiment has shown anything, it’s that men online face extreme competition with other men in getting noticed by women, especially the very attractive women.
So, what’s the best possible message a man could send to stand out from the crowd and wow the woman? I decided to write what I thought would be a very good first message and send it to the most attractive woman on OKCupid I could find (after a 3-minute browse).
The message needed to:
• Demonstrate creativity, intelligence and a great sense of humour
• Be totally different to anything she may have received before
• Be obviously unique and not a cut-and-paste job
• Show that I’ve read her profile and absorbed facts about her
• Not be needy!
I ended up writing a very long message that weaved lots of facts from the recipient’s profile into a faux-news script, as if news readers were talking about her live on television. As she read the message, she’d notice more and more clever references to her hobbies, dress sense and so on.
Here’s what I sent.
And here, happily, is her reply.
The fact that the first stage of online dating is so heavily stacked in women’s favour doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any easier for them, compared to men, to reach the end goal of pure love or perfect sex. They may have the pick of the bunch to begin with, especially if they happen to be really attractive, but they can still only date one man at a time—they must still filter the largely undifferentiated onslaught of male attention into yes and no piles. Then the yes pile has to be sorted through in much the same way as anyone else does it—by talking, bonding, finding common interests, realising there’s been a big mistake, or a wonderful discovery.
In the end men and women probably do have it about equal, it’s just a bit different for each.
Oh, and if you’re a man, it’s in your best interest to make sure your messages are really well-considered, creatively-constructed and demonstrative of your intelligence, humour and lack of neediness.
I think this experiment roughly demonstrates the differences in the volume of messages women receive, especially attractive women, compared to men. However, it was by no means scientific. For it to have been, it would have needed much more than 10 profiles. You could also argue that it tested the same thing for both sexes (looks), whereas in reality, women mostly judge men on criteria other than how they look. Therefore, perhaps a fairer experiment would be to create a profile for men that advertises the traits in men that women pay most attention to. These would be, according to the studies I’ve read, their job, income and social status.
It should also be noted that once the accounts were relocated in England, I stopped logging into them for the following several months. This means that, over time, other users may have noticed that the accounts were lying a bit dormant and subsequently been put off the idea of sending a message. However, because all accounts would have shown the same “Last Online” date, I don’t think this could have skewed the final message totals in any meaningful way. The women still beat the men.
Finally, I know that certain aspects of this experiment are a bit shady and underhanded, but apart from not having any messages replied to, the general OKCupid user base shouldn’t have noticed any discrepancies in their online experience.
That’s it. For now.
1. Journal of Communication, Vol. 59, No. 2. (2009), pp. 367–386, doi:10.1111/j.1460–2466.2009.01420.x
2. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, Vol. 34, No. 8. (2008)
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