Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

We are all familiar with the ways people typically describe themselves in online dating profiles and the list of features they seek from potential dates. However, research suggests that we may be able to "read between the lines" and tell more about someone from reading their profile, over and above what the profile actually says. 

Part of a research project by Andrew Fiore and colleagues (Fiore, Taylor, Zhong, Mendelsohn and Chesire, 2010) involved an analysis of dating profile self-descriptions written by males and females. Males were 58 percent of the sample, and the average age of people on the site was 41 for males and 42 for females. In terms of ethnicity, 77 percent reported being Caucasian, 9 percent Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent African American and 1.6 percent Asian. The remainder reported being another or mixed ethnicity.

The researchers first looked at the descriptions of the users. Fiore and colleagues analyzed the dating profiles with a software tool known as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) (Pennebaker, Francis and Booth, 2001). The LIWC allows written passages to be analyzed syntactically (how the words are used together to form phrases or sentences) and semantically (an analysis of the meaning of the words or phrases). In their analysis of profile descriptions, they focused on the categories of words that evolutionary psychology might suggest would be important (e.g. home, money, work, and sex), because these are the things highly desired in a romantic partner. They also focused on emotionally based words and tentative language, which might feasibly be related to intimate relationships, with the additional possibility that there would be a gender difference in the use of these words. 

In addition to this, the researchers used psychometric tests, which measured adult attachment style and general trust and caution. People with low scores on anxiety and avoidance attachment styles are securely attached, meaning they don’t fear intimacy or being rejected, whereas those higher on these dimensions have more difficulty in establishing close relationships. Those scoring high on trust and low on caution are less concerned about interacting with others in uncertain environments, whereas those scoring low on trust and high on caution prefer stable relationships compared to new ones. 

What the Words Used in Profiles Tell Us

Using the LIWC and data obtained from 548 females and 566 males, the researchers found that certain categories of words used in dating profiles were associated with gender and scores on the tests described above.

For females, those who used negative emotion words, such as hate, scored lower on trust, higher on caution, and higher on attachment anxiety. Males who employed more positive emotion words, such as love or nice, scored higher on general caution and also higher on attachment anxiety. Overall, those who employed more tentative words, such as maybe or perhaps, scored lower on trust and higher on attachment anxiety. Therefore, the words employed tell us about the profile owners, enabling us to judge potential dates more effectively. 

In summary, females who used a greater number of negative emotion words, males who employed a greater number of positive emotion words, and individuals of both genders who used tentative words were more cautious and may have had more difficulty in establishing a relationship, due to an anxious attachment style.

In terms of gender differences, the findings were that females used a higher number of words related to home and sex than males in describing themselves, whereas males used a greater number of words related to work in describing themselves. This is consistent with what evolutionary psychology would predict in terms of each gender advertising what the other would desire in a dating partner. Finally, females also used more words that were related to emotion, especially positive emotion. 

What Profile Length Tells Us

The researchers found that 90 percent of these profiles varied over a wide range, between 40 and 305 words. In general, males' profile descriptions were 11 percent shorter than females' (106 words for males compared to 118 for females). In terms of age, profiles written by people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s were 13 percent longer than profiles written by people who were younger than 30 or older than 50. Therefore, length may give us some clue as to whether a dating profile was actually written by a male or female, and also their age.

What Are People Seeking and Why?

Males reported seeking females ranging from 3 years older than themselves to 11 years younger. Females, on the other hand, reported seeking males who were 7 years older to 5 years younger than they were. Therefore, females were seeking males within a 12-year range, whereas males were seeking females within a 14-year range. The fact that females are choosier than males, and the difference between males and females in desired age ranges, are again explained by evolutionary psychology: Females need to be choosier, because they face a risk which males don’t in terms of childbirth. Males generally seek younger females, as youth is associated with greater fecundity. However, as they get older, both males and females begin to seek people who are increasingly younger than themselves.  

In addition to seeking females over a wider age range, males also tended to be less choosy in specifying the type of person they were looking for. They expressed their preferences based on an average of 9.1 characteristics, whereas females expressed a preference based on 11.9 characteristics; this difference was similar across all ages. The most apparent feature on which females tended to specify was ethnicity, about which they were twice as likely as males to be choosy. 

Summary

The researchers state that their findings should be treated with an element of caution, although they do tell us about what males and females are seeking in a dating partner. More interestingly, the findings open up the possibility that we might be able to gain more insight into what an individual is really like in terms of attachment style, trust, and caution simply by reading their profile.

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References

Fiore, A. T., Taylor, L. S., Zhong, X., Mendelsohn, G. A., & Cheshire, C. (2010). Who’s right and who writes: People, profiles, contacts, and replies in online dating. Retrieved from http://www.computer.org/csdl/proceedings/hicss/2010/3869/00/index.html.

Pennebaker, J.W., Francis, M.E., & R.J. Booth. (2001). Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC):LIWC2001. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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