Science has done much to deepen the beauty and wonder of everything from stars to thunderstorms, whales to honeybees, but something strange and ugly happens when scientists stick their curious noses into the world of human mating.
While Shakespeare and other artists show us lovers who must win their suitors by proving their courage, character and intelligence, scientists tell us we’re in a “market model” of mating, in which our value is based on little beyond youth, looks and, for men, money. A new study on internet dating insists we’re all looking for the best deal we can get, and that women max out in value at 18, men at 50. Science has reduced the human mating dance to something no more romantic than shopping for a dishwasher.
Here it’s good to remember that science sees only part of the picture. Joyce Carol Oates wrote that love is two things: bodies and words. Science has focused on just the bodies, but that’s only because the bodies are the easier part of the equation to study.
In the new paper, published in Science Advances, for example, researchers had access to data from hundreds of thousands of people on an unnamed dating site, but all the researchers knew were basic demographic facts, such as age, as well as how many messages the subjects got in response to their profiles, and how many fellow internet daters responded back. They also had access to the number of words exchanged, but not the actual words.
The researchers defined “desirability” by the number of messages people received, factoring in the desirability of those sending the messages. It’s a working definition; the word “popularity” might be more fitting. What they found was that people tended to contact users who were about 25 percent more popular than they were.
The news media spun this in opposing directions. Some outlets warned people that they were aiming out of their league. Others advised people that the best strategy was to aim out of their league. University of Michigan physics professor Mark Newman, one of the co-authors of the study, said they really didn’t get enough information to know what strategy works best.
First of all, they don’t know who is looking for a hookup, and who is looking for a long-term relationship, and which users were finding what they sought. All they know is that when people messaged potential partners who were much more popular than they were, they got replies from about 20 percent. That might be good or bad, depending on what you’re after. People tended to write longer messages to those who were farthest above them in the popularity scale.
The most depressing part of the study was the finding that women’s popularity went downhill after age 18 — the youngest that was allowed on the site — while men appeared to have a much longer shelf life. But the number of messages received may or may not have much to do with success on the site, whether in hookups or lasting love.
A guy who admits he wants a one-night stand during a business trip might not get many replies, but if he gets even one taker for that offer, he may feel he’s getting more than his money’s worth from the service. Maybe he was in town for only one night anyway!
And too much popularity can create a time inefficiency problem. The record, the researchers said, went to a 30-year-old New York woman, who received 1,500 messages within days of putting up a profile. Whether she’s looking for a long-term partner or a date every night of the week doesn’t matter. She might not have time for any dates unless she hires a staff to sort through all the messages.
The conclusions weren’t that different from those of a study on speed dating that I wrote about in 2005. Speed dating involves a face-to-face interaction, usually taking place in a pub, with a group of men and women allowed to have a three- to five-minute conversation with each of about 25 potential suitors.
The psychologists who designed that study said they were trying to test two possible models of human mating behavior. In one, called the matching hypothesis, like is attracted to like. I thought of the movie “Shrek,” in which the title character, who is big green ogre, is thrilled when the beautiful princess turns into a green ogress. And in fact one of the researchers referred to it as “the Disney model” of dating.
The other approach is called the market model, in which everyone asks for a second meeting with the prettiest people but, ultimately, everyone has to settle for the prettiest they can get.
Of course, speed dating is not a microcosm of real life. The subjects are deciding based on very brief interaction whether they want to talk again. Looks played an outsize role, but other factors could be important in deciding who would get a second or third date. This “first-pass filter” is important for understanding the internet dating study as well. In that case, the researchers don’t even know which messages are likely to lead to a meeting or even a phone conversation.
University of Texas evolutionary psychologist David Buss said that the aspirational part isn’t surprising — people tend to want the best mates they think they can get, and also tend to overestimate their own attractiveness. But he said it’s absolutely critical for people to be well-matched in intelligence.
Shakespeare knew it all along. His plays are full of peasants and clowns who think they are much more appealing than they are. In “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Nick Bottom is easy to convince he’s quite the hot commodity, even with a donkey’s head. In contrast, many of the lead characters are endowed with a piece of the Bard’s own monumental verbal intelligence and insight. Those gifted young people face a special challenge: They have fewer options than the average people when it comes to finding an intellectual match.
In “As You Like It,” the male lead Orlando knows he’s a good match for Rosalind, but he also knows he will never impress her without a little effort. Because he’s awkward, he has to write poems to prove he’s one of the gifted kids too. And we, the audience, know his long-term happiness depends on his overcoming his personal obstacles.
Science tells us something insightful about the average person. The average person may indeed suffer from horrible self-assessment. But it’s the characters with the ability to understand their flaws and grow who give life to drama and literature. They aren’t the average, but we already knew that. Their lives are destined to be more interesting, regardless of how many messages they receive on a dating site.