Not Getting Online Dates? Your Bar Is Probably Too High

By: Alia Hoyt
woman rejecting roses from nerd
Is she out of your league? You might get more online dates if you looked for people similar to yourself. Spiderstock/Getty Images

We're taught to set lofty goals to achieve success in our education and careers, but socially that can actually backfire if you're constantly shooting for potential mates who are way "out of your league." So, if you're not getting the responses you desire in the online dating realm it might be time to stop swinging for the fences, at least according to the results of a new study out of the Santa Fe Institute, published on Aug. 8, 2018, in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers analyzed data gleaned from a free (unnamed) online dating service used widely in four major U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Seattle and Chicago. They found that both women and men regularly pursued dates with potential partners who were roughly 25 percent more desirable than they are. So, let's say you're a solid "6" on a scale of 1 to 10. That means you're regularly trying to connect with others who would fall at a "7.5" or even higher. Men and women tend to do this in equal measure, but the practice results in a lot of unanswered messages.


To determine "desirability," the researchers employed an algorithm that ranked users based on the number of messages they received, as well as the desirability level of the senders. "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 explained in a press release.

The researchers also found that people used different communication strategies with people of varying levels of desirability. So, the more attractive a potential date was, the longer and more involved the email/text message tended to be. Unfortunately, this extra effort usually didn't pay off. "We also find that the probability of receiving a response to an advance drops markedly with increasing difference in desirability between the pursuer and the pursued," the researchers write in the study.

That's not to say that it's impossible to get a date with a total "10." "I think a common complaint when people use online dating websites is they feel like they never get any replies," Elizabeth Bruch, lead author, said in a press statement. "This can be dispiriting. But even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21 percent of people who engage in this aspirational behavior do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off."

However, if you want to increase your odds of finding love or even just the occasional date, it might be time to dial back expectations just a bit — or at least widen your pool of contacts. Here are some other dating tidbits the researchers found:

  • Older woman are seen as less desirable (desirability peaked at age 18!), while older men are more desirable, up to the age of 50.
  • Asian women and white men are seen as the most desirable mates.
  • Education for men is always desirable; for women an undergraduate degree is desirable, while a postgraduate degree decreases desirability.
  • Of the four cities studied, Seattle had the worst dating climate for men, with two men for every woman in some parts of the user population.

Learn more about online dating in "Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating" by Paul Oyer. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.