How Do People Choose Their Partners? Insights from a Large-Scale Study on Online Dating

Online dating has become incredibly popular in recent years. More than 300 million people worldwide use dating apps and websites. Understanding how people select their partners through these online platforms can teach us a lot about the psychology of romantic attraction and partner choice.

A comprehensive new study, published in Human Nature, sheds new light on this topic. Scientists analyzed data from a staggering 1.8 million online daters from 24 countries to discover the factors that influence someone’s popularity and success on dating platforms.

In this blog post, I’ll summarize the key findings and discuss what we can learn from this research about how people choose romantic partners, both online and offline.

The Key Research Questions The study focused on three core questions:

Does higher education and income increase the romantic interest someone receives online? Are there gender differences in this effect? How does this effect vary between countries and cultures? These questions are relevant because previous research often yielded conflicting results. Some studies found that women are perceived as less attractive when highly educated or successful. However, other studies found that higher education and income make both men and women more attractive.

This new research aims to provide clarity by using a vast amount of real behavioral data from online daters.

The Research Methodology

The researchers gained access to data from members of an international dating site active in 24 countries, totaling a remarkable 1.8 million dating profiles.

For each profile, they counted the number of received messages, likes, and winks, which served as a measure of how much interest someone received from other members. They then examined whether this was related to the individual’s gender and a combination of their educational level and income, as indicators of their ‘resources.’

However, there are some limitations to this research method. Information about physical attractiveness, which also significantly impacts dating success, was missing. Additionally, nearly all participants came from ‘Western’ countries.

The Role of Gender in Partner Choice

One of the most striking results is that women on the dating site received significantly more interest on average than men. In almost all countries, female profiles received approximately 500-800% more likes, messages, and winks.

This gender difference was remarkably consistent across countries. Only in the United States did the gap close among men with very high education and income. Overall, women benefited much more from online dating.

This underscores that gender is one of the most powerful predictors of someone’s dating success. Women have far more options online than men, which can lead to frustration for some men with fewer matches. At the same time, the abundance of choices can also be overwhelming for women.

More Resources Increase Attraction

For both men and women, higher education and income were associated with receiving more interest from others. In other words, the more successful someone is, the more popular their dating profile becomes.

Interestingly, this effect was nearly 2.5 times stronger for men than for women. For men, interest roughly doubled when they scored one standard deviation higher in education and income. For women, this increase was only about 40%.

This supports the evolutionary perspective that women pay strong attention to men’s resources and status in partner choice. For men, these factors are less important when choosing women.

The rationale behind this is that in our evolutionary history, women benefited more from a partner who could provide for them and their offspring. Men could focus more on other qualities, such as youth and fertility.

Cultural Differences are Smaller than Expected

There were some cultural differences in the importance of resources. This effect was slightly stronger in countries with greater gender inequality and weaker economies.

However, overall, the cultural differences were surprisingly small. In all modern societies, it seems that the same evolutionary psychological mechanisms of attraction are at play.

This contradicts the expectations of some sociologists and anthropologists who believed that cultural influences would have a much greater impact. Apparently, there are universal psychological principles that guide our partner choice, regardless of culture or online/offline context.

Online Dating as an Ideal Research Method

Online dating provides researchers with a wealth of information about human partner choice. Members have access to a vast pool of potential partners, and their behavior – swipes, likes, messages – reveals who they are genuinely attracted to.

Previously, the largest studies on partner choice were often isolated from each other. Now, these massive amounts of online dating data offer the opportunity to analyze patterns across millions of people.

Of course, there are differences between online and offline dating. Looks are more important online, and interactions are initially more superficial. However, for researching the fundamental principles of attraction, online dating provides a treasure trove of information.

Conclusion and Advice for Singles This research demonstrates that gender, education, and income play a significant role in someone’s dating success. Women have a considerable advantage online. And the more successful someone is, the more desirable they are as a partner.

So, the message for singles is clear: focus on your career and financial situation. This applies not only in real life but also on your dating profile. This holds even truer for men than for women.

Of course, physical attractiveness remains crucial. But this study emphasizes that we should not underestimate the importance of success and status when finding a partner, whether you’re dating online or offline.

This article is based on the study “Being More Educated and Earning More Increases Romantic Interest: Data from 1.8 M Online Daters from 24 Nations” by Peter K. Jonason and Andrew G. Thomas, published in Human Nature in 2022.

Study download in PDF

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