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Out of your league? Study shows most online daters seek more desirable mates

The majority of people in the analysed dating networks contact other people who are 25% more desirable than themselves.

THE NOTION THAT an attractive person is “out of your league” doesn’t often dissuade dating hopefuls online, and the majority of only daters seek partners who are more desirable than themselves, a new study has found.

The analysis, published in Science Advances, reveals that hierarchies of desirability – or “leagues” – emerge in anonymised data from online networks in four major US cities.

The majority of people in these dating networks contact other people who are 25% more desirable than themselves.

They also tend to tailor their messaging strategies, sending relatively longer messages to contacts who are further up the hierarchy.

“We have so many folk theories about how dating works that have not been scientifically tested,” lead author of the study Elizabeth Bruch, of the University of Michigan, said.

“Data from online dating gives us a window on the strategies that people use to find partners.”


In order to rate users’ desirability, the researchers used a ranking algorithm based on the number of messages a person receives and the desirability of the senders.

“If you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumably more desirable yourself,” they said.

“Rather than relying on guesses about what people find attractive, this approach allows us to define desirability in terms of who is receiving the most attention and from whom,” co-author Mark Newman said.

The algorithm was applied to data from users of a data website in New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle.

The study is the first large-scale analysis to focus on hierarchies of desirability in online dating.

Among other things, it reveals how people behave strategically during online courtship by altering the length and number of messages they send to individuals at different levels of desirability.

Because most users send the majority of their messages “up” the hierarchy – out of their league – a lot of messages go unanswered.

“I think a common complaint when people use online dating websites is they feel like they never get any replies,” Bruch said.

“This can be dispiriting. But even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21% of people who engage in this aspirational behaviour do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perspective pays off.”


Bruch added that the study also shows that sending longer messages to more desirable prospects may not be particularly helpful, although it’s a common strategy.

Of the four cities examined, the notable exception was Seattle, where the researchers observed a payoff for writing longer messages. In other locations, longer messages didn’t appear to increase a person’s chances of receiving a reply.

Hitting the send button

The researchers looked at what prompts people to hit the “send” button if messages are the measure of desire.

When they compared desirability scores against other attributes, they found correlations between age, education level, and ethnicity.

For example, up to the age of 50, older men tended to have higher desirability scores than younger men, while women’s desirability scores tended to decline from ages 18 to 60.

Although the study affirms that many people make choices that align with popular stereotypes, Bruch stressed that this is not a rule that holds for all individuals.

“There can be a lot of heterogeneity in terms of who is desirable to whom. Our scores reflect the overall desirability rankings given online dating site users’ diverse preferences, sand there may be sub-markets in which people who would not necessarily score as high by our measures could still have an awesome and fulfilling dating life,” she said.

She also stressed that this is just the first, and perhaps shallowest, a phase of a relationship.

Previous dating research has shown that as people spend time together, their unique character traits become more important relative to other attributes.

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