The Psychology of Online Dating: He Wants and She Is

In the first article in this series (The Psychologists Viewpoint) I outlined the different types of research using personal advertisements, generally printed advertisements published on the ‘lonely hearts’ pages of newspapers and magazines.

You will recall that over the last few years psychologists have collected and analysed thousands of these personal descriptions, and have found patterns and sex differences in what people want from a partner, how people advertise themselves to a prospective partner, and how well they pick up on the sort of things the other sex is looking for. This article looks at this from the perspective of male desires and female self-descriptions; looking at what men have actually said they are looking for in a partner, and how good women are at saying the right things to attract a man. Although this is about male wants it is probably of more use to women, particularly when you are considering the sort of thing to say in the ‘in your own words’ box of your online dating profile.

Firstly we will discuss the features that men particularly seek when describing their ideal partner and how women use their knowledge of this when describing themselves. Secondly we will consider how good women are at this – are there some things that women could say that would make a big difference? Finally we will consider how women can best use this information to hook the interest and get a proper look from men who are browsing through pages and pages of online profiles.

Before you read any further, pause for a moment and ask yourself what men are typically looking for in a female partner. Think of maybe four things and note them down … now read on.

What does the research say?

One of the strongest results to emerge from examining personal advertisements is the sex difference in the importance of attractiveness. Apart from age and sex, attractiveness (beauty, good looks etc.) is the most frequently described characteristic in personal advertisements written by both men and women but a whole range of studies have found that women are much more likely to describe themselves as attractive or using similar terms (handsome, beautiful, good looking etc.) than men are, and men are far more likely to say they are looking for someone who is attractive than women are.

This suggests that not only are men more interested in a partner’s physical attractiveness than women but that women already know and use this information. This is also backed up when you look at other physical descriptions such as hair and eye colour. Women are far more likely to mention their own hair and eye colour than men and men are far more likely to say they are looking for a ‘brown eyed brunette’ (or whatever) than women are. The other physical attribute that stands out is build or weight, often expressed as dress size. Granted there is no simple male equivalent to a woman describing herself as a ‘size 10’ (pretty slim in UK dress sizes) but there are plenty of other words (trim, slender, muscular) that could be used. Even so, men are more likely to describe the size/weight range of the person they are looking for than women, and women are more likely to describe their own size, build or weight than men.

Another important factor that emerges from the research is age. Age is almost always mentioned in advertisements written by both men and women. Usually both the age of the writer and the age range of their preferred partner are specified. There is little difference in whether or not age is mentioned so it looks like it is similarly important to both sexes. However there is a difference when you start looking at the actual numbers. In general, women are looking for someone of similar age to themselves or someone who is older by a few years. It is rare to come across a woman who states she is looking for someone younger. Men are usually looking for someone of a similar age or younger, in some cases considerably younger. This suggests youth is something that is valued by men, and perhaps this ties in with ideas about what is attractive.

Apart from stating their physiological age in years, many women who are (perhaps) re-entering the dating scene a little later in life give a more subjective evaluation of their age, usually saying something that implies youth such as young at heart, youthful, or looks younger. Older men also do this but it is much more common in women’s self-descriptions and women begin to use claims of youthfulness at earlier ages than men.

Overall, then, looking at personal advertisements the biggest difference between men and women is over description of physical characteristics including attractiveness and body size or shape, and specific physical features that may be considered attractive such as eye colour and hair colour. Age ties in with this if we assume a link between youth and attractiveness. Men tend to want younger, sometimes much younger partners while women, particularly older women, tend to describe themselves as being youthful in outlook or directly tie this in with looks by claiming to be young looking for their age.

On a wider level, a number of researchers have remarked that when women describe themselves they tend to emphasise their male-valued, physical traits rather than the traits that they, as women, place value on. It would be easy to argue that women do this because they hold stereotypical, even prejudiced views of men but the strong evidence of a match between how women describe themselves and what men actually say they want indicates women have got it about right. It appears that when women write an advertisement or dating profile, they often do a good job of writing for a male audience and seem to have a pretty clear idea of how best to promote themselves and attract male attention.

How can we use this?

Most of this is unsurprising and you may be thinking that you already knew this. However you now know for sure that this is not just prejudice but is backed up by scientific research. More importantly, this is knowledge you can use to improve your own profile.

Although there is little you can do to change your age, attractiveness and physical features, there is plenty of scope to decide what you emphasise and the kind of language you use. I am not suggesting that you lie, particularly since the whole idea is that you will eventually meet up and overt lying about physical features would do you no good at all. Without lying it is perfectly possible to focus on your best features and try to use the kind of keywords that men are likely to pick up on.

With online dating profiles, photographs are generally a prerequisite to getting responses and given the sex differences in the importance of attractiveness, it’s probably fair to say a good quality photo showing you in your best light is particularly important for women.

Apart from this there are the ‘in your own words’ sections of your profile. If you or others consider you attractive then mention this, don’t worry about the fact that it is already in the form-like section of your profile. If you are slim then mention this. If you are not comfortable with claiming either of these then mention your most attractive features such as your beautiful eyes, lovely auburn hair, attractive personality and/or young outlook. Notice the language I am using: it may seem trivial but adjectives like attractive, beautiful, lovely and young will catch the attention of the men who (on average) are more interested in this sort of thing than women. Men are predisposed towards spotting this kind of thing and even those who claim to be more interested in personality than looks will notice these words. If you feel you can refer to yourself as young and stunningly beautiful with a great figure then do so. If you don’t feel that confident then use more moderate language or qualify these statements (young at heart, considered beautiful by some, attractive figure) and refer to specific features like your hair and eyes. Using key words such as these and mentioning your physical features makes it more likely you will grab his attention and your profile will get more than a brief scan and then move on.

To wrap things up, this article has outlined the results of psychological research into what men say they want in a partner and how women describe themselves. This information has then been used to provide insight into the sort of language that might help a woman’s personal description catch a man’s eye.

The next article in this series, She wants and he is, turns the tables and considers what women say they want from men, how men describe themselves, and how good (or bad) men are at picking up on what women are actually looking for in a partner.