The Psychology of Online Dating: The Psychologist’s Viewpoint

Psychologists interested in dating and attraction have learned a great deal by reading and examining the personal advertisements and ‘lonely hearts’ pages of local and national newspapers. Since we psychologists have benefited from the people who use these services it seems only right that some of the things we’ve found should be given back. In this series of articles I will outline some of the more practically useful findings that have come from this research and provide a summary of the results reported in academic psychology journals, written for those who probably have the greatest interest in this knowledge: the daters themselves.

There is quite a bit of material to cover so I have organised it into a series of six articles:

The Psychologist’s Viewpoint

This article gives an idea of the scope of research using personal advertisements, the way personal profiles are used in research, and the kind of things psychologists can find out when they put their minds to it.

He wants and she is

This outlines research into the things that men say they are looking for in a partner. Alongside this we look at how women describe themselves. Combining these we can assess how accurately women understand what men want and use the right kind of language to attract a man’s interest. This one is particularly useful for the girls and should help you write something for the ‘in your own words’ bit of your profile.

She wants and he is

This article gives the opposite perspective to the previous one, looking at the things that women say they want in a partner and the way that men describe themselves. Do these match up? Have men got it right or are they missing the point completely? This one might help the boys rethink the content of their ‘own words’ parts of their dating profiles.

Like for Like or Opposites Attract?

This article summarises the results in the previous two and uses these to outline the current psychological theories of attraction. It explains how ‘like attracts like’ and ‘opposites attract’ can both be true and how this can help you when you are first making contact with someone after reading their profile.

Blitzers, Boasters and Being Choosy

This article looks at research into general approaches to dating including the results found by researchers who experimentally placed different versions of personal advertisements and then sat back to see how many and what kind of responses they got.

Summary and Practical Uses

The final article of this series summarises all that has gone before and places this new knowledge firmly in the context of online dating, describing how these results can be constructively used to make fewer mistakes and to improve your chances of attracting responses to your profile and getting a positive response to your first approach to someone.

Before getting into the results of the research we need to take a brief tour around the ways in which research psychologists use personal advertisements and the kinds of things they can find, so we have some idea of the sort of things that psychologists can and cannot say about personal advertisements and internet dating profiles.

Content Analysis

Personal advertisements have been a rich source of information for social scientists investigating dating behaviours. To give an idea of the scale of this enterprise, my own research in this area is based on the analysis of nearly five thousand advertisements collected from UK local newspapers. Apart from this I have copies of more than sixty research reports published by colleagues in Brazil, Canada, Hungary, Japan, Poland, UK and USA. This adds up to about thirty thousand individual profiles that have been analysed by psychologists, sociologists and other professional researchers. Most of this research has used printed personal ads extracted from newspapers and magazines as these are more useful to us (as explained below) but the information and insights gained can be applied to any situation where first impressions come from written descriptions, so these results are directly relevant and useful to people using internet dating sites.

Creating a profile for an internet dating site usually involves describing yourself on a whole host of listed options such as eye colour (blue, green etc.), smoking habit, attractiveness, salary etc. This information is usually entered into the site using a form. Within this form each person makes their own choices from the options available but because it is a form, everyone has to mention the same kinds of things. In a sense, the dating site has already decided what the important features are and you simply tick the correct boxes when describing yourself and describing the sort of person you want to meet.

With printed personal advertisements there is no detailed form to fill in and you can write whatever you want. The only restriction is on the number of words with an escalating charge per word up to a maximum limit. As a result these advertisements are quite short, averaging about 22 words. This is typically enough space to mention about nine things, whether these are your own attributes (age, hair and eye colour, looks) or things you are looking for in a partner (sense of humour, marital status, age range, personality, height). Given these restrictions we can reasonably expect that people mention the most important things as they see it, so the content of these advertisements tell us what characteristics the writers think are important to the other sex, and what key things they are looking for themselves. For example, a personal advertisement that says “Stunning, curvy and adventurous 22 year old blonde female is looking for a financially secure older man, ideally with own hair and teeth, who will spoil her rotten.” gives a pretty clear indication of what matters to this person and what she is offering in return.

Researchers have taken thousands of personal advertisements and analysed them to look for general patterns. From this, they have identified some very clear differences between the kinds of things that are important to men and women when looking for a partner. They have also looked at how well the self descriptions of each sex matches the features that the other sex says they want, giving an indication of how much each sex understands about what the other sex is looking for. Results from this kind of research are discussed in the articles He wants and she is, and She wants and he is.

Apart from the specific attributes and features mentioned, there are also more general differences in how people write these descriptions. For example women tend to give more detailed information about the sort of person they are looking for than men, while men are more focussed on describing themselves. Looking at a profile from this perspective tells us quite a lot about the approach people take to dating, including whether they are looking for a few high quality matches or just want as many dates as they can possibly get. This research is summarised in the article Blitzers, Boasters and Being Choosy.

Knowing how people describe themselves and the sort of thing they are looking for also allows us to look at broader questions such as whether people are looking for others who are similar to themselves or would prefer a partner who is different but, in some sense, complementary. This is discussed in the article Like for Like or Opposites Attract where we find that both are true once we understand a more basic and useful theory of attraction.

Experimental Research

Apart from examining the advertisements that real people have written in the hope of finding a partner, psychologists have occasionally become active researchers and have placed experimental personal advertisements to see how many and what type of response they get. For example, if two almost identical advertisements are placed and one receives twice as many responses as the other, this tells us that the difference between these ads (which may be as small as one word) has a big effect on the chances of attracting a date.

Some psychologists have also used this type of research to investigate the sort of things that men and women write when responding to an advertisement. This has given researchers another way to classify the different approaches to dating and to identify groups such as the ‘blitzers’ who send responses to everyone in the hope that some of them will score a hit. Results from this experimental research are presented in the article Blitzers, Boasters and Being Choosy.

This article has outlined the organisation and content of this series, has introduced the ways in which psychologists approach dating research, and has indicated the sort of things they may be able to see from their viewpoint as researchers.

In the next article we move on to looking at some actual findings. He wants and she is looks at the features that women tend to emphasis when advertising themselves, the things that men are actually looking for, and whether or not womens’ self descriptions suggest they are marketing themselves well and have an accurate insight into what men want.

Online Dating Services – Not Just for the Younger Generation Anymore

If you’re over the age of 40, you may not think the online dating scene has very much to offer you. But you would be wrong!

Not only are people 30 years old and younger signing up for online dating services memberships in record numbers, so are people much older than that. So if you’re a little more, shall we say, mature, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find yourself in good company on an online dating service website.

Actually, the company may be so good, that you can finally tell your nosey friends to bug off and stop trying to fix you up. You can make your own dates using an online dating service, and they’ll be dates you’ll really want to go out on because online dating services give you the chance to get to know people before you go to the trouble and expense of going out on a date. Now, you can’t do that with that blind date your friend Sue keeps trying to set you up with, thank goodness.

And you don’t have to worry about security and confidentiality on online dating websites. All your personal information is kept personal until you’re ready, if you ever are, to divulge it. If someone falls head over heels in love with you and they start bugging you, you can have that person blocked from contacting you. Too, if at anytime you feel someone is being abusive or threatening in any way, you can report them, and many online dating services will revoke the threatening person’s membership.

So online dating is safe and secure, it must be hard, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. You simply fill out the membership form, pay, post your profile and picture if desired, then BOOM! You’re in the online dating business!

What could be better! Well, just the fact that you can place yourself in a category or sign up at a special online dating service site that lets you be a bit more selective in the other mature or senior singles you’d like to connect with. For example, there are Jewish online dating services, Asian online dating services, and Christian online dating services just to name a few. You can even sign up for particular cities through websites devoted to them. Atlanta online dating services, Cincinnati online dating services, New York online dating services and Nashville online dating services are just a few examples. And while your own city may not have an online dating service of its own, you can check into dating services of larger cities close to you.

So what are you waiting for? The significant other of your dreams is just a mouse click away!

The Psychology of Online Dating: She Wants and He is

In the first article in this series (The Psychologists Viewpoint) I outlined how psychologists have investigated attraction and dating preferences by looking at the contents of personal advertisement and online dating profiles.

The second article (He Wants and She is) described the sort of things men say they are looking for in a partner. In this article we turns things on their head and consider what women have said they want in a partner as well as how men describe themselves and whether this matches women’s desires.

Before we begin, please spend a few moments and think of about four general things that you think women are typically looking for in a partner … now let’s see what scientific research has revealed.

What does the research say?

When looking at sex differences in what’s sought from a partner, two factors stand head and shoulders above the rest and are reported so often in the research literature that it would be remarkable if any researcher failed to find these results. In the previous article we discussed the fact that men are far more interested in a partner’s attractiveness than women are. The thing that women look for but men don’t is wealth.

In fact it is only a small minority of women who directly say they are looking for someone rich and we need to take a slightly broader view of what constitutes wealth or at least financial stability. Some of the phrases encountered do refer directly to wealth (e.g. ‘rich’ and ‘financially secure’) but in many cases women will say they are looking for a partner who has specific assets (e.g. ‘own house’) or employment (e.g. ‘business type’, ‘professional’ or even just ‘working’). Alternatively, the thing mentioned might be a personal attribute that, while it could be viewed as sought for its own sake, implies an aptitude or capacity to earn now or in the future (e.g. ‘ambitious’, ‘intelligent’ or ‘college educated’).

Taking money, assets, employment and aptitudes separately, in each case women are more likely to say they are looking for a partner with these characteristics than men are. When taken as an overall category of features implying wealth or the capacity to earn, research has consistently shown women are more interested in a partner having these features than men. For example, in 2003 I presented some results to colleagues based on my collection of nearly 5000 advertisements. Within this set of data, women were six times more likely than men to mention one of the above as a desirable characteristic in a partner.

Men seem to be fully aware of what women are looking for as they are consistently more likely than women to mention that they are financially secure, well educated, or have personal qualities that might be expected to lead to wealth or security. Often this is done directly through a bald mention of personal assets such as ‘own house and car’ (a phrase used so frequently it is often abbreviated to ‘OHAC’) or men may be more subtle and include something in their description that implies wealth such as ‘hobbies include good restaurants, opera, sailing and regular holidays overseas.’

Male interest in attractiveness and female interest in wealth are both pretty clear cut. You will recall the other things men wanted in a partner were also physical features of one kind or another. Women’s desires, however, are not as simple as this. Apart from wealth (or at least financial stability/promise) there are three other factors that women are just as interested in and just as likely to mention when seeking a partner.

The first of these is a difficult concept to pin down as different researchers view it in different ways depending on how phrases are grouped together. For example, if we consider phrases such as ‘expressive’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘open’ as referring to something different to phrases such as ‘warm’, ‘loving’ and ‘romantic’ then both our ‘expressiveness’ and our ‘warmth’ categories will have relatively smaller numbers of adverts than a general category containing all these phrases. Where researchers do group these together and look for what might be called positive emotional characteristics as a single category, then women are just as interested in finding a partner like this as they are in a partner’s wealth and resources. Men are also pretty interested in finding someone who they describe using phrases of this type but not as interested as women are. However men are certainly aware of women’s desires in this area as they are considerably more likely than women to describe themselves as having these female-valued emotional characteristics.

Another characteristic that men often lay claim to, and women often seek, is identified by phrases such as ‘honest’, ‘genuine’, ‘faithful’ and ‘committed’. If we take these phrases as indicating the desire for a partner who is open to having an ongoing relationship and who is not going to mess you around, then this is something women are also as interested in as wealth and emotionality.

The last female-valued attribute I want to mention is physical and is the only physical attribute that women seek more often than men do. It is height.

Whether a specific height is mentioned or whether it is simply the use of the adjective ‘taller’ when describing a partner, women are far more interested in a man’s height than men are in a woman’s, and they almost invariably want men who are tall, or at least taller than they are themselves. This result has been found in numerous studies of personal advertisement and was borne out again recently in a novel study of speed dating events. Researchers at the University of Essex looked at the characteristics of men who were more or less successful at getting invitations to follow-up dates at speed dating events. They found the men who were most successful at any particular event were usually among the tallest present.

Men seem to be aware of this female preference as they are far more likely to mention their height than women. This may be an assertion that they are ‘tall’ or they may give an actual height. However in my sample of personal advertisements, the average male height (where it is mentioned) is 5 feet 10 inches. This is significantly taller than the average adult male height in the UK population so either these men were inflating their heights or only the taller men mentioned it.

In summary, based on extensive research looking at what women say they want in a partner, the four main characteristics that emerge are wealth (or at least financial security), positive emotional characteristics (such a warmth, openness and sensitivity), someone who is honest and open to forming an ongoing relationship, and height.

How can we use this?

In the previous article I used this subheading as an opportunity to advise women on how they can present themselves to attract initial male attention. In this article I am not going to do this as I think the research above speaks for itself, and I want to explore briefly the moral dilemma I had about writing these articles, particularly this one. It is to do with deception.

There is no doubt that deception is widely used when seeking a date. From a psychological perspective, women’s use of makeup, hair dye and body shaping knickers are actually forms of deception that are specifically targeted at the physical features that men are interested in. Now I am not asserting a moral position here as these forms of deception are widespread and socially acceptable, not to mention (in the case of makeup) visually detectable. I more want to make the point that although they may not usually be viewed this way, they are in fact methods used by women to deceive men about their male-valued characteristics.

Given the above, we should also expect men will use deception to make themselves more attractive to women. Furthermore, deception is most likely to involve exactly the things that women seek in a partner. Unfortunately these are intangibles such as personality characteristics that cannot be immediately observed, leaving men much greater scope to lie.

If you are a man who is genuinely sensitive, financially stable, and looking for a real relationship then please do mention this in your personal advertisement as you will probably get a better response, but also bear in mind that many others will be (perhaps falsely) emphasising these features so don’t expect women to take any such claims at face value. Women looking for someone like this will and indeed should take the time to get to know someone. It is well known that women prefer to develop relationships slowly and given what I have said above, this is not only understandable but could also be viewed as another way to test a man’s character. If he really is sensitive and committed then a slow start to a relationship should not be a problem.

The next article takes some of the results mentioned in this and the previous article and uses these to explore theories of attraction. This may sound a bit dry but the main aim of the article is to introduce you to a current psychological theory of attraction that you can use to assess your own value in the ‘mating market’.