Skin Deep

Appearances can be misleading—and learning more about them can help us think more intelligently and act more kindly.

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What Does Online Dating Tell Us About Racial Views?

The importance of analysis over moralizing

Preferences can be funny things, or at least our judgments of them. If I were to state that, “I have no interest in hiring a black person to do this job”, I would receive more than a little condemnation for that view. If I were to state instead that, “I have have no interesting in dating a black woman”, I would likely still receive some condemnation, but probably less than for the first statement. Finally, if I were to state that, “I have no interest in dating a man”, I would receive very little, if any, condemnation for it, even from those who advocate strongly for gay rights. As one of my colleagues recently posed the question, “Why is discrimination based on reproductive / sexual preferences OK, but other forms of discrimination are not?” The issue of discrimination is one I’ve discussed before, considering why discrimination on the basis of standardized test scores is deemed to be appropriate, whereas discrimination of the basis of obesity is often not. So let’s turn our attention towards discrimination in the sexual realm today.

“Free?! I’d have to be an idiot not to find the Asian of my dreams!”

A recent post by Jenny Davis over at the Pacific Standard suggests that “Online dating shows us the cold, hard facts about race in America“. In her article, Jenny discusses some data released from a Facebook-based dating app that figures out which people are interested in which other people on some sexual or romantic level. The data is labeled “unfortunate” in some respects, because there appear to be winners and losers, and those winners and losers seem to break down along racial lines. When it comes to mating, it seems that everyone doesn’t get to join hands and cross the finish line at the same time so that we all end up with equally-high self-esteem (I know; I was shocked too).  To give you a sense for the data (and so you don’t have to click back and forth between links), here’s the breakdown of the response rates for people who are interested.

As anyone can clearly see, there are favorites. When it comes to the highest positive response rate, most women, regardless of their race, appear to favor white men, whereas most men, again, regardless of their race, tend to favor Asian women. In terms of the lowest response rate, women appeared to shun black men, whereas men tended to shun black women. Ouch. Jenny, using what I can only assume is that same “high-powered sociological lens” I’ve encountered before, concludes that this clearly demonstrates that race matters, and serves to counter accusations that we are living in a color-blind, post-racial world. As Jenny puts it we “fetishize Asian women while devaluing blacks”. Now tone doesn’t come across well through text-based communications at time, but neither “fetishize” nor “devalue” sound as if they have a particularly positive connotation to me. It sounds as if she’s condemning other people for their sexual preferences in that respect.

There are many comments to make about this, but let’s start with this one: apparently, there’s something of a no-win situation being erected from the get go. When one group is preferred, it’s a “fetish”, whereas when they’re not preferred, they’re “devalued”. Well, sort of, anyway; if she were being consistent (and who is?) Jenny would also say that women “fetishize” white males. Strangely, she does not. One can only guess as to why she does not, because Jenny makes no apparent attempt to understand the data in question. By that, I mean that Jenny offers no potential alternative explanations through which we might understand the data. In fact, she doesn’t seem to offer any explanation whatsoever for these patterns of responses. If I had to, I would guess that her explanation, if simplified somewhat, would reduce to “racism did it”, but it’s hard to tell.

“But are they the Black singles of my dreams, like the Asians?”

I would like to try and pick up some of that explanatory slack. Despite initial appearances, it is possible that this data has very little, if anything, to do with race per se. Now I happen to think that race likely does matter to some extent when it comes to dating preferences, but the degree of that extent is anyone’s guess. To see why I would say this only requires that one understands a very basic statistical concept: correlation does not equal causation. This is something that I imagine Jenny understands, but it likely slipped her mind in the midst of trying to make a point. There are few examples to consider, but the first is by far the simplest. Most men, if you polled them, would overwhelming respond to women on dating websites, and not other men; women would likely do the reserve. This does not mean, however, that men (or women) “devalue” other men (or women). Similarly, just because people on these dating sites might respond to black people at the lowest rates, it does not mean they “devalue” black people more generally.

But maybe we do devalue certain racial groups, at least when it comes to dating them. This brings us to the second issue: mating decisions are often complex. There are dozens of potential variables that people assess when choosing a mate—such as how much money they have, how much they weigh, how tall they are, their age, their relatedness to us, etc.—and the importance of these qualities also varies somewhat depending on the nature of the relationship (whether it is more short- or long-term, for instance). The important point here is that even if people are picking mates on the basis of these other characteristics alone and not race, we might still see racial differences in outcomes. Let’s say, for instance, that men tend to prefer women shorter than themselves as dating partners (the reasons for this preference or it’s actual existence need not necessarily concern us). If that were the case, provided there are any average differences in height among the races, we would still see different response rates to and from each racial group, even though no one was selecting on the basis of race.

Rather than just considering the direction the preferences in the data above, then, let’s consider some of the actual numbers: When it came to response rates, regardless of whether we were considering men or women, and regardless of whether we’re considering the highest or lowest response rates, black individuals seem to respond more often than any other group; sometimes around twice as often. This could be indicative of a number of different factors, though I won’t speculate as to which ones on the basis of the numbers alone. The only point is that those factors might show up in user’s profiles in some way. If other people pick up on those factors primarily, then race itself might not be the primary, or even a, factor driving these decisions. In fact, in terms of response rates, there was a consistent overall pattern: from lowest to highest, it tended to be Latinos, Whites, Asians, and Blacks, regardless of sex (with only a single exception). Whatever the reasons for this, I would guess that it shows up in other ways in the profiles of these senders and responders.

Strangely, I can’t find a picture of a white dating site. Odd…

As I said, I don’t think that race per se is entirely unrelated to mating choices. However, to determine the extent to which it uniquely predicts anything, you need to control for other relevant factors. Does obesity play a role in these decisions? Probably. Is obesity equally common across racial groups? Nope. How about income; does income matter? In some cases it sure seems to. Is income the same across racial groups? Nope. We would likely find the same for many, many other factors.

In addition to determining the extent of how much race matters, one might also wish to explain why race might matter. Simply noting that there appear to be some racial differences doesn’t tell us a whole lot; the same goes for correlations of match percentages and response rates over at OkCupid, which find a similar pattern with respect to race. In the instance of OkCupid, a match percentage of 10% between two people corresponds to about a 25% reply rate; a 90% match percentage gets you all the way up to… a 37% reply rate. Even at around 100% match, the response rate still only lingers at around 50%. There appears to be a lot more that goes into mating decisions than people typically appreciate or even recognize. For what it’s worth, I would rather work to understand those complexities than pat myself on the back for how bad I think racism is.

Skin Deep