Is Online Dating the Best Way to Find a Partner?

The effect of self-esteem in online dating

Posted Mar 21, 2018

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Online dating has now almost become the ‘go to’ method for seeking a romantic partner.  Furthermore, advertisements for online dating sites boasting convincing statistics on high success rates suggest that online dating may not just be the most preferred method for dating but also the most effective.  For example, an American study of over 19,000 people married between 2005 and 2012, found that over a third had started their relationships online.  The study also found that the marriages, which began online, were slightly less likely than marriages that were the result of traditional meeting, to end in divorce or separation and higher levels of relationship satisfaction was reported in marriages where partners had met online (Cacioppoa, Cacioppoa, Gonzagab, Ogburnc, & VanderWeelec (2013).  We must not ignore the possibility that this finding could also be the result of differences between the types of people who use online dating compared to those who use traditional methods, for example, they may be naturally more contented or satisfied with life generally. 

However, regardless of the statistics on success rates in online dating, do we really believe that we can be more successful when using online dating as opposed to using traditional face-to-face dating?  This question was addressed by researchers Chris Fullwood and Alison Attrill-Smith from the University of Wolverhampton in the UK, who additionally suggested that our perceived levels of success in online dating might also be related to self-esteem (Fullwood & Attrill-Smith, 2018).

Self-esteem and online dating

Self-esteem may be defined as an evaluation of one’s sense of self-worth or the way in which we think about or evaluate ourselves.  One characteristic of high self-esteem is having a higher drive and more motivation, therefore people with higher self-esteem are more likely to promote themselves in a positive way.

In an online dating context, this may be particularly relevant and be manifest in how users expect others to rate their dating profiles.  Higher self-esteem is also generally associated with a higher level of self-acceptance.  If this is the case, those with higher self-esteem would be more likely to portray a realistic and positive image of themselves, which if reflected in their online dating profiles might increase their chances of success. 

However, online environments also allow people more control over the ways in which they present themselves, by, for example, being able to select carefully the photographs and information they display online.  Because of this, individuals with low self-esteem might assess their chances in online dating as better, because they can more easily manage their online image. 

In the study by Fullwood and Attrill-Smith (2018), participants initially completed a measure of self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965) and were then divided into two groups referred to as online and offline.  Those in the online condition were presented with a sequence of photographs of potential dates and instructed to imagine that they had just joined an online dating site and that the photographs with which they were presented were those of people they were assessing for the possibility of a date.  Participants in the offline condition were also presented with a sequence of photographs and were asked to imagine that these were of individuals they had met on a night out.  All participants were instructed to rate the photographs they viewed for two things:

  • How attractive they thought the person in the photograph would find them.
  • How likely the person in the photograph would be to go on a date with them.

All participants were told that they should imagine that they were single and looking for a relationship.   

Does self-esteem have an effect?

Maybe unsurprisingly, the researchers found that their participants who had higher self-esteem thought the people in the photographs they viewed would rate them as more attractive compared with those in the low self-esteem group, and that this was the case regardless of dating location (offline v online).    

Secondly, they found that dating location (online v offline) affected perceived levels of success but not attractiveness ratings.  In other words, the participants assigned to the online group reported that they thought that online dating would lead to more success than offline dating.  This was regardless of participants’ level of self-esteem. 

Therefore, the take home message is that regardless of self-esteem, people generally overestimate their chances of success in online dating in comparison to face-to-face dating.  In the study described here, the researchers speculate that this is probably to do with our potential to carefully impression manage our online persona and convey a more favourable image of ourselves.  This then leaves us with the idea that we can achieve more success online.  In other words, we think that we can put forward a more favourable image online, by carefully selecting which photos to upload and describing ourselves in the most positive way possible.  It may also be the case that this leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that if we start to think we will have more success at something , then we may very well end up doing do.  


Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G. C., Ogburn, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2013). ‘Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 10135-10149.

Fullwood, C, & Attrill-Smith, A. (2018). ‘Up-Dating: Ratings of Perceived Dating Success Are Better Online than Offline’.  Cyberpsychology Behaviour and Social Networking. 21, (1), 11-15.

Rosenberg, M. (1965). ‘Society and the adolescent self-image’. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.