Interracial marriages are still far from the norm in the United States. As of 2013, just 12 percent of all newlyweds and six percent of all married spouses consisted of interracial couples. Opinions on interracial marriages aren’t much better: In 2014, Pew Research Center found that only 37 percent of Americans said people of different races marrying each other was a good thing for society.
While disconcerting, these numbers are still an improvement: In 1970 only one percent of all married couples were interracial. And the number of interracial couples is only expected to grow, in part driven by a surprising factor: online dating.
That’s the argument behind a new paper published recently in the journal Physics and Society. Through a statistical model, economists Josue Ortega and Phillipp Hergovich came to the conclusion that online dating, and its spurring of new social ties, will dramatically change the level of interracial marriage. And while it can’t be credited as the only instigator of interracial marriages, they also suspect that online dating has likely played a role in how many interracial marriages there are today. Ortega and Hergovich write:
We observe that the number of interracial marriages has consistently increased in the last 50 years, as it has been documented by several other authors. However, it is intriguing that shortly after the introduction of the first dating websites in 1995, like Match.com, the percentage of new marriages created by interracial couples increased rapidly. The increase becomes steeper around 2004 when online dating became more popular.
The researchers based their own model off the Gale-Shapley algorithm, a matching algorithm based on the idea of deferred acceptance. Here, people — called “agents” — from different races are randomly located in the same unit square and connected with other people for marriage based on physical proximity and who they know. Ortega and Hergovich then introduced a new social tie to their agents with online dating, which contributes to a small increase in the probability of two agents of different races being connected. They then compared how many interracial marriages were formed within their model societies. They found that even though the resulting number wasn’t huge, there were more interracial marriages occurring with online dating.
“Our model predicts nearly complete racial integration upon the emergence online dating, even if the number of partners that individuals meet from newly formed ties is small,” the researchers write. “We contrast our theoretical results with empirical U.S. data and find that, as predicted by our model, the number of interracial marriages substantially increases after the popularization of online dating.”
They also note that this is a far from a perfect system: The structure of the model is simple, and it’s restricted by a formula that forces agent’s preferences, and “fails to capture many of the complex features of romance on social networks, like love.” The findings may also be surprising to those who actually use dating applications. Tinder swiping data reveals that black women and Asian men are the demographics that are “swiped left” the most, while white men have the highest reactions overall. That doesn’t sound like a society that’s running towards a more diverse and equal future.
But the algorithm’s predictions of an increase in interracial marriages is indicative of how small the occurrence is in the first place. According to Ortega and Hergovich, the proportion of new interracial marriages increased to 17.24 percent in 2014 and then leveled out at 17 percent in 2015.
The ability of online dating to make a change, the researchers explain, comes down to the simple fact that it increases the chance for new social ties. Traditionally people meet through things like mutual friends, families, and neighbors — and a society like ours that still maintains a lot of racial segregation doesn’t bode well for those original social groups to be diverse. Meeting people outside your own social network increases the chance of meeting a romantic partner outside your race. With 15 percent of Americans using dating apps and one-third of modern marriages beginning online, that means there’s definitely more of an opportunity to get together with someone of another race — if people are willing to.
There’s also one more perk to online dating the researchers found: The model also predicted that marriages created by online dating tended to be stronger, and last longer. That’s seems good for society and good for love in general.