What Online Dating Studies Don't Tell You

A new study shows online daters tend to message people in their attractiveness "league." But can online dating studies really tell us about love?

Researchers at Berkeley looked at 3,000 straight online daters (a followup experiment studied over a million). They found that popular users (those who got the most unsolicited messages overall) were more likely to message other popular users than would be predicted by chance. And less-popular users were more likely to message their less-popular peers. Says Sam Sommers of the Huffington Post, "It would seem that when it comes to dating, most of the time we do indeed try to stick to 'our own league.'"

But maybe they don't need to. Study authors Lindsay Taylor et al write,

[We] did not find that individuals who contacted similarly popular others were more likely to be successful than those who contacted dissimilar others. This suggests that although people do tend to stick to others who are "in their league," it would not be detrimental to their chances if they did not, at least when it comes to popularity.

Good news for online daters: even if you're not the queen bee yourself, you could still date her. More broadly, what the study authors are admitting is that while their work describes one aspect of dating behavior, it also leaves out a lot — like who actually ends up going out.

The Taylor study is also one of an increasing number that use online dating as a laboratory for studying human relationships. And outside the academy, OkCupid has made a variety of online dating data available to a lay audience via its blog. As a result, much of what we know or think we know about dating and mating comes from online activities.

This makes a certain amount of sense — after all, online dating now has more mainstream acceptance than ever, and many relationships of varying durations now begin on the internet. Increasingly, an analysis of online dating is an analysis of how a big chunk of Americans meet. It's also way easier to study than the offline variety. In their review of previous research, Taylor et al note the "enormous difficulties faced by researchers in creating a realistic dating setting" and write that "past studies paired up participants for dates [...] or participants rated hypothetical partners [...] or partners whom they had no expectations of actually dating [...]. Studies such as these assess attraction to or preferences for attractive partners, but we cannot know whether participants' ratings of hypothetical partners, for example, reflect whom they would actually choose to date." Studying online dating solves this problem, to some extent: "The popularity of Internet dating sites now provides an opportunity for researchers to observe dating behavior unconstrained by the laboratory."

And yet, as different as it may be from the fake-dating scenarios described above, online dating is also quite different from dating in the so-called real world. Online daters can view potential matches, learn about them, and compare them in very different ways than singles at a party can. Messaging someone is a very different act than asking for someone's phone number at a bar. Getting a lot of messages is a different form of popularity than getting asked out a lot in public. And knowing a lot about how people behave on a website won't necessarily tell us anything about how they act when they get off it.

If we ever reach a point where all or most dates are orchestrated online, none of this will matter. But until that happens, we should remember that settings shape our interactions, and an online setting makes people behave in certain ways that may not apply in the real world. Taylor et al acknowledge this: they call for further research in the form of "longitudinal studies in which couples are followed from the initial contact through later stages of their relationship to see whether individuals who are matched (or mismatched) on different dimensions tend to succeed and for how long." That is, to really know what makes couples get and stay together, we need to follow them from their first date until they either break up or die. And while that's a lot tougher than just keeping track of who messages who, it might yield pretty fascinating results.

STUDY: Opposites Don't Necessarily Attract [Huffington Post]

Image via charles taylor/Shutterstock.com