A new study out this week from researchers at Yale and Stanford asks whether we prefer to date people with similar political views.
Researchers have known for a long time that people tend to be married to someone with similar political views much more often than would happen by chance. What they didn't know is if that happened because people chose their partners this way or if it happened for other reasons. The former is called "homophily" - we are drawn to make social connections with people similar to ourselves. This is well established for lots of other social factors (race, religion, education level, etc.). But it could be that people simply tend to live in areas where there is a dominant political view and thus they end up dating people with that view. If you live in a city that is almost entirely Democrats, it's likely you will marry a Democrat because there are few other choices.
It can be hard to tell if politics influenced a choice after two people get together, because by then there are many reasons they have found they are compatible. Is there a way to observe people before they get together and see if politics plays a role?
To answer this, the researchers turned to online dating platforms. They conducted two studies: one in the lab and the other using real data from an operating system.
In the lab study, 1,000 participants filled out the survey with their own information including their political preferences. Then, the researchers showed them a variety of different profiles designed to control for other factors and test whether people were more interested in partners with similar political ideologies. The profiles indicated whether the person shared the subject’s politics. They found people were more likely to express interest in profiles of people with similar political beliefs.
However, it’s one thing to say who you were interested in and another to act on it. The researchers also tested action. The collected data from a large online dating site and analyzed how often people engaged through messaging one another. After controlling for other attributes, they found pairings (where a man messaged a woman and she replied) are about 10% more similar in political beliefs than would be expected. In other words, people tend to interact more with people who share their views.
Homophily on various traits is known to influence our choices in partners. These results show that politics has about the same level of influence as education level (people tend to date others with similar amounts of schooling). It is about half as powerful as race.
Beyond our romantic prospects, these results may hint that it is harder to resolve political differences than we might think. It shows that, in some ways, we self-segregate and avoid people with different views. If we do that, we limit the conversations that help us empathetically see the other side.
Huber, Gregory A., and Neil Malhotra. "Political Homophily in Social Relationships: Evidence from Online Dating Behavior." The Journal of Politics 79.1 (2017): 000-000.