What Do You Really Know About Online Dating?

The truth behind the myths, and what it could mean for you.

Posted Mar 17, 2015

Pressmaster/Shutterstock
Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Of all the myths that abound regarding online dating, perhaps the most prevalent is that it’s a practice reserved only for the most desperate, introverted, and least socially skilled. Because there is so much mythology surrounding online dating, it’s also difficult to get accurate perceptions from users of why and how they use the services, as well as what they hope to get out of them.

We do know some of the best ways to make online dating sites work for users. The best sites underpromise and overdeliver; in other words, they don’t lead you to believe that the search for a perfect match will be quick and easy. Recent research also suggests, however, that if you’re not careful, your online search for the perfect partner will be jaded by your exposure to romantic media like books, movies, television shows, and magazines.

Chapman University’s Veronica Hefner paired up with media planner Julie Kahn (2014) to find out whether people’s online date preferences could actually be shaped by exposure to romantically-themed media. According to the theoretical perspective known as cultivation theory, heavy exposure to certain types of media could lead people to see the “real world” as more similar to its fictional representation than to reality. A lifetime of watching rom-com movies or TV shows could lead you to think that a certain kind of romance (lighthearted, with a touch of crisis) is one that an average person can or should expect to have.

Following up on cultivation theory, Hefner and Kahn found in their study of online dating choices among college students that both men and women who were heavy consumers of romantic-themed media ("chick lit" and rom-com's, etc.) saw potential online partners as more romantically alluring. Participants were also affected in their judgment of potential mates by the extent to which profiles were phrased in idealistic terms. In other words, the team concluded, when you’re searching for a partner online, your judgments may be overly biased by what you’re primed to expect.

Perhaps the major challenge for online dating site users is to decide how truthful to be in their own profiles while also deciding how much to take the online profiles of others with a grain of salt. Hefner and Kahn’s study shows that regardless of how honestly your potential matches choose to portray themselves, you’ll still read their profiles through the lens provided by your own biases and expectations. (Men weren’t immune to the effect, either.)

As the study’s authors concluded, “people who routinely view romantic screen media develop attraction to these ideal traits” (p. 16). The more you watch, and like, romantic media, the more attractive you'll rate a stranger—and the more strongly you’ll endorse romantic beliefs.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the results of a more wide-ranging study analyzing online dating habits and published on the website statisticbrain.com. If we’re biased going into an online dating site by our TV and movie habits, how is this reflected in our choice of a potential mate?

According to the website's statistics, many (71%) online users are in fact guided by the romantic notion that people can fall in love at first site. Primed by exposure to the media, it’s hard to resist the lure of one ideal partner waiting out there for you.

Data summarized on this website provides additional factual information about online dating that may surprise you even more: First, of the large number of singles in the U.S. (more than 54 million), about 80% have tried online dating sites at least once. More than 21 million have used Match.com alone, and more than 15 million are members of eHarmony. Online dating sites, as you would imagine, are big business, generating more than $1.25 trillion in revenue per year.

Online users, according to this website, are willing to answer hundreds of questions about themselves (400 for eHarmony), and spend a significant sum of money (average of $239) as part of their quest. But the money may be well-spent: It takes about two-and-a-half times longer for people to marry after a first meeting with someone made offline than online (42 months vs. just 18.5 months). Approximately 17% of marriages and 20% of committed relationships now begin online—and the figure is growing.

What’s more surprising—and interesting from a psychological point of view—are the behaviors of the average online match-seeker.

Let’s see how many of these you can spot as true or false:

  1. More women than men use online dating sites.
  2. One-third of female online dating site users have sex on the first date.
  3. The majority date more than one person at a time.
  4. Women online prefer neither “nice guys” nor “bad guys,” but really want a blend of both.
  5. Men seeking women online definitvely prefer “hotties.”
  6. Women are seen as more desirable when young, and men as more desirable when middle-aged.
  7. Men tend to lie about their weight online, and women tend to lie about their age.
  8. Everyone is most attracted to blonds.

Answers

  1. False. There are actually slightly more men (52%) than women (48%) using these sites. It’s possible that the anonymity and potential to avoid being publicly shamed by a face-to-face rejection makes these safer places for men to meet potential dates.
  2. True. 33% of women state that they had sex on the first encounter that was arranged online. Of course, we don’t know how long online interaction prior to sex had occurred, and there’s no comparison presented here for how many casual encounters, or hookups, occur between total strangers.
  3. True. Over half (53%) of online daters are pursuing multiple partners at once. This should be a word of warning, as it suggests that you’re as likely to meet someone who’s not truly "single" as someone who is. On the other hand, half are seeking or are in monogamous online relationships..
  4. False. Portraying yourself as a "bad boy" won’t get you very far in the online dating world. Over twice as many women (38%) prefer "nice guys" to bad boys, though women who want both are a close second (34%). (Only 6% want “any man I can get.”)
  5. False. Here’s a fact that might help you pose more honestly for your next profile pic: Only one-quarter of men say they prefer a “hottie” compared to 42% who want someone with a good career, and 34% who want “a "girl next door" type. The findings suggest that men are generally pretty open-minded when it comes to seeking a mate online, perhaps more than many might expect.
  6. True. Age does not favor women in the online dating world. Men have more online followers when they are in their late 40s, while women's online desirability peaks at age 21.
  7. False. This might surprise you, but it is men who tend to lie about their age (presumably assuming it’s better to appear younger) while women lie more about their weight. In general, men care less about physical appearance than women believe, and people of both genders do primarily prefer someone who’s pleasant and has a good sense of humor.
  8. False. Although it might appear that blondes have more fun in an online dating world—32% of users rate blondes as their top choice for hair color—when you consider that 16% favor black and 16% brown, the blond-vs.-brunette total is exactly the same. But again, since personality is shown to matter more than appearance, a smiling bald man should still win out over a man with long blonde hair who can’t bring himself to laugh.

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Reference

Hefner, V., & Kahn, J. (2014). An experiment investigating the links among online dating profile attractiveness, ideal endorsement, and romantic media. Computers In Human Behavior, 379-17. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.04.022

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015