Science and the Online Dating Profile

Using evidence to connect electronically

Posted Mar 17, 2015

  • Do spelling mistakes annoy you?
  • Would you ever eat something out of the trash?
  • Do you think women have an obligation to keep their legs shaved?
  • Do you like the taste of beer?
  • In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?

At first glance, you might not think that spelling mistakes, eating trash, shaved legs, the taste of beer, or nuclear war would have much to do with finding true love.  But it turns out that your answers to these seemingly trivial questions could determine whether you end up attracting or repelling the object of your online romantic fantasies.  

Jessica Bodford, coauthor of this post
Source: Jessica Bodford, coauthor of this post

According to one online source, over 41 million Americans have tried to find a mate using an online dating service such as, eHarmony, or OKCupid.  Worldwide, the numbers are of course much higher.  OKCupid alone claims to have over 1 million visitors every day. 

Anyone who has ever set up an online dating profile will tell you that it can be an exercise filled with uncertainty and anxiety.  What should one say about oneself?  How should you make contact with potential dates... From choosing a profile picture (Do I want to look easygoing or hard to get? Realistic smile or attractive pout?) to summarizing your entire being in 100 words or less, it’s difficult to convey yourself in a marketable light without coming across as self-centered.

If only there were a scientific formula to “up your online dating game.”

In an article published in Evidence-Based Medicine, researchers Khalid Khan and Sameer Chaudhry sought to create exactly that: “an evidence-based approach to an ancient pursuit”—namely, tried and true ways to convert an online dating profile into a face-to-face meeting.

After searching through 3,938 potentially relevant studies, Khan and Chaudhry narrowed their review to 86 publications in psychology, sociology, and computer, behavioral, and neurocognitive sciences.  From these they were able to extract themes, topics, and unexpected suggestions to create the ultimate dating profile recipe.

Here are some of their suggestions:

1. The “About You” section.  To avoid coming off as self-absorbed, Khan and Chaudry suggest that you discuss not only yourself, but also what you’re looking for. They recommend a 70:30 ratio—70 percent you, but 30 percent your hopeful date. Rather than reciting your resume and list of perfections, try working phrases into your profile such as “I’m looking for someone who loves to keep fit” or “I’d love to meet someone with a passion for Geocaching.”

But what characteristics should you rattle off in that 70 percent? It might depend on your gender. Whereas men respond positively to kind, approachable, and attractive women who value fitness, women prefer evidence of bravery, courage, and risk-taking over kindness and altruism in potential mates.  This suggestion fits with an abundance of research, some conducted by our colleagues.  Indeed, women in a mating frame of mind tend to publicly broadcast their kindness and altruism, whereas men broadcast their Peacock-like brilliance, wealth, and competitive advantages over other men (Griskevicius, Goldstein, et al., 2006; Griskevicius, Cialdini & Kenrick, 2006; Griskevicius, Tybur, et al., 2007).  

2. The profile picture.  It shouldn’t be surprising that past research recommends using an attractive profile picture. But for those who want to up their chances even more, choose a genuine smile that engages your eye muscles (i.e., a Duchenne smile) to communicate humor and light-heartedness. Research also suggests showing a slight head tilt to appear mysterious or playful.

But for online dating sites with multiple profile pictures, opt for a few group shots that show you and your friends having a good time…particularly if you’re in the middle. Khan and Chaudhry state that “capitalising on the centre-stage effect creates a sense of importance” and suggests that you’re a fun person whom others want to be around. This is particularly the case if you are shown touching a friend’s arm or shoulder, “because a toucher is perceived to be of higher status than the one touched.”

If you’re a heterosexual male, studies suggest that women find men more attractive when these group shots feature females who are smiling in your direction. It creates a sense of competition, which increases perceived desirability.

3. The message.  If you see another person’s profile that suggests you might find them a desirable partner, how should you contact them?  A few of Khan and Chaudhry’s suggestions may come across as obvious—that your message should highlight your kindness and good humor, for example.  But they offer an additional and less obvious suggestion: Personalize your message to tailor to your target’s profile. Chances are, he already thinks his profile is brilliant and presumes his picture is at least a 9 on a 10-point attractiveness scale. Rather than just saying “Nice profile,” Khan and Chaudhry suggest that you ask personalized questions that play up your interest in his hobbies or career.  “I see you are a graduate student in cognitive psychology, it must be fascinating to study how the mind works!”

But most surprisingly, they suggest that you try to crack a rhyme. The researchers found that people respond positively to humorous attempts to make a rhyme out of their username or actual name. If “Hi,” “Howdy,” or “Greetings” seems a little stale, try working a rhyming joke into your first sentence. 

4. What's in a (user)name?   Perhaps unsurprisingly, men are more attracted to usernames that signal physical attractiveness (e.g., Blondie, Cutie), whereas women respond more positively to male usernames that signal successful careers (BusinessDude) or intelligence.  Again, this fits with numerous studies conducted by evolutionary social psychologists over the years.

And besides all the meaningful content, it turns out that something as simple as alphabetical order can play a role.  Many dating site search engines return profiles in alphabetical order, meaning that usernames beginning with the letters A through M will have better luck drawing attention and date requests than letters in the second half of the alphabet.  So better to choose a username closer to Aardvark than to ZZanzibar.

Speaking of the alphabet, it turns out that spelling mistakes can in fact make a big difference.  If you say, “I regard myself as a briliant genius with intrists in nucular physics and other profownd toppics,” you hurt yourself in two ways: You communicate unintended information that disproves your intended self-presentation.  They also point out that it’s better not to brag, in any event, but to show it rather than say it.  If you’re brilliant, it will come through in your wit.  And if you’re not a brilliant speller, take an extra minute to use a spell checker.

This post was coauthored by Jessica Bodford.  

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Griskevicius, V., Cialdini, R.B., & Kenrick, D.T. (2006). Peacocks, Picasso, and parental investment: The effects of romantic motives on creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 63-76.

Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N., Mortensen, C., Cialdini, R.B., & Kenrick, D.T. (2006). Going along versus going alone: When fundamental motives facilitate strategic (non)conformity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 281-294.

Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J.M., Sundie, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Miller, G.F., & Kenrick, D.T. (2007). Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption: When romantic motives elicit strategic costly signals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 85-102

Khan, K. S. & 0, S. (2015). An evidence-based approach to an ancient pursuit: systematic review on converting online contact into a first date. Evidence-Based Medicine, in press, 1-9.

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