Most online daters tend to seek out partners who are “out of their league,” or essentially more desirable than themselves, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

“We have so many folk theories about how dating works that have not been scientifically tested,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bruch, a sociologist and the study’s lead author. “Data from online dating gives us a window on the strategies that people use to find partners.”

Bruch and her co-author Dr. Mark Newman study complex systems at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,— and belong to the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute.

For the study, the researchers analyzed anonymized data from online dating networks in four major U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle. The research is the first large-scale analysis to focus on hierarchies of desirability in online dating data. Among other things, the study reveals how people behave strategically during online courtship by altering the length and number of messages they send to individuals at different levels of desirability.

According to the findings, the majority of online daters reach out to prospects who are 25 percent more desirable than themselves. Users also tend to tailor their messaging strategies, writing relatively longer messages to potential partners who are further up the hierarchy.

To determine the desirability of each online dater, the researchers used a ranking algorithm based on the number of messages a person received and the desirability of the senders.

“If you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumably more desirable yourself,” they write in the paper.

“Rather than relying on guesses about what people find attractive, this approach allows us to define desirability in terms of who is receiving the most attention and from whom,” says Newman.

Because most users send the majority of their messages “up” the hierarchy — out of their league — a lot of messages go unanswered.

“I think a common complaint when people use online dating websites is they feel like they never get any replies,” Bruch says. “This can be dispiriting. But even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21 percent of people who engage in this aspirational behavior do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off.”

Bruch also says that although sending longer messages to more attractive prospects is a common strategy, it may not be particularly helpful. In most locations, longer messages did not appear to increase a person’s chances of receiving a reply. One notable exception, however, was Seattle, where the researchers did observe a payoff for writing longer messages.

So what prompts a user to ultimately send a message? When desirability scores were compared to user attributes, the researchers found correlations between age, education level, and ethnicity. For example, up to the age of 50, older men tended to have higher desirability scores than younger men, while women’s desirability scores tended to decline from ages 18 to 60.

Though the study findings seem to align with typical stereotypes, Bruch stresses that this is not a rule that holds for all individuals.

“There can be a lot of heterogeneity in terms of who is desirable to whom. Our scores reflect the overall desirability rankings given online dating site users’ diverse preferences, and there may be sub-markets in which people who would not necessarily score as high by our measures could still have an awesome and fulfilling dating life.”

Bruch also emphasizes that this is just the first, and perhaps shallowest, phase of dating. Previous dating research has shown that as people spend time together, their unique character traits become more important relative to other attributes.

Source: Santa Fe Institute