- We used 1.8 million dating profiles to see what characteristics attracted the most attention.
- High competency in education and income increased the interest men received more than it did for women.
- Even highly competent men received less attention than women with low levels of competency.
- The attention dynamic is due to more men seeking casual sex than women coupled with ambiguous, low investment mating contexts.
A robust sex difference in the mate preference literature is that women tend to want a mate higher in social status than men. Of course, this is a relative difference and one which I spoke about in a previous post.
However, it is nonetheless a difference that has implications for finding and attracting mates. In this post, I’ll cover some results from a study in press in Human Nature where we asked what effect status (in the form of competency) has on dating profile performance. We'll also talk about why men tend to receive less attention online than women and what can be done to avoid this imbalanced dynamic.
Measuring Profile Interest and Competency
For this study, we took advantage of a dataset of 1.8 million dating profiles from 24 countries gifted to us by a large dating website. We started by forming a measure of how much attention each profile received from other users—messages, likes, and winks. We called these “Indicators Of Interest,” or IOI for short. Next, we formed a measure of competence, which, in this case, was a combination of the person’s income and level of education.
Looking at IOIs gave a depressing insight into the mating market. Most users had few IOIs—often nothing at all despite being active on the sites. Others were beacons for attention, attracting hundreds of messages and likes. The pattern was so skewed that we had to run a special type of model which likes this type of skewed data.
Running this model also revealed the extent of the sex differences; for a person of average competency (some college education and earning just over £28k a year), men typically received around eight IOIs, while women received more than three times this amount with 26.
Competency Impacts Attention
Did competency make a difference? Given that women tend to place greater interest in the social status of their partners, you might expect higher levels of competency to enhance the appeal of men’s profiles more than women. And you would be right; a high competency man (think degree-level earning around £38k) received almost 90 percent more IOIs on average compared to around 40 percent for a woman.
Was this increase enough to bridge the sex difference gap? Not really. According to the models we ran, these high competency men would still only receive 15 IOIs on average—less than women with low competency, who would tend to get 18.
Explaining the Sex Difference
Why is the sex difference in dating profile attention so large? One explanation is that women are picky about their partners while men are not, creating a “buyer’s market” where men compete for access to women. I feel like this is an oversimplification for reasons I mentioned in a recent post.
Instead, I think the issue lies with the pluralistic nature of human mating. While serial monogamy is so prevalent in humans, it could be considered the “default” setting. It’s not our only one. Desire for other mating arrangements, such as promiscuity, can be found in almost all known cultures. And such mating arrangements may have been historically beneficial for both sexes under the right circumstances—so beneficial that evolutionary psychologists believe that we possess a psychology adapted to both short- and long-term mating (Buss and Schmitt, 1993).
However, the risks associated with short-term mating represent one of the biggest sex differences in our species. Biologically speaking, it is far easier for men to “unsubscribe” from the responsibility of pregnancy than women. A brief read around sexually transmitted diseases reveals that the symptoms can have a greater impact on the fertility of women than men.
Differences in risk translate into differences in willingness to have short-term, sex-based relationships. Men tend to hold a strong desire for these types of relationships and will relax their standards to get them. In contrast, women have less desire for casual sex and, when they are open to this, tend to maintain or even increase their standards compared to what they seek in a long-term mate.
Desire for Casual Sex Meets Online Ambiguity
The differences in desire for casual sex alone might be enough to generate an environment where men give attention while women do the picking. However, the issue is further compounded by the fact that mating context is often ambiguous, particularly online.
Swiping apps, originally set up to facilitate “hookups,” can lead to committed relationships, and dating sites with elaborate compatibility testing and an emphasis on love still produce one-night stands and are frequented by users who are open to sleeping around as much as settling down.
The result? An environment where women become so inundated with requests from men with short-term interests that engagement becomes one-way. Men looking for a long-term partner find their messages lost in a sea of superficial solicitation. Women find themselves having to wade through responses, hold men to a high standard, and judge them as “promiscuous until proven committed.”
What can men do to bridge the IOI gap without becoming super-competent? And what can women do if they are frustrated with sifting through countless superficial messages?
My recommendation would be to favour searching for mates in contexts that foster investment from both parties, such as local speed dating events. Not only do these require time and effort to attend, but you can rely on all of your senses and adaptations when making your mate choice decisions and have a smaller number of more meaningful interactions.
Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (2017). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. In Interpersonal Development (pp. 297-325). Routledge.
Jonason, P. K., & Thomas, A.G., (in press). Competency increases romantic interest in 1.8M online daters from 24 nations: Sex differences and country-level effects. Human Nature.