The Psychology of Online Dating: She Wants and He is

In the first article in this series (The Psychologists Viewpoint) I outlined how psychologists have investigated attraction and dating preferences by looking at the contents of personal advertisement and online dating profiles.

The second article (He Wants and She is) described the sort of things men say they are looking for in a partner. In this article we turns things on their head and consider what women have said they want in a partner as well as how men describe themselves and whether this matches women’s desires.

Before we begin, please spend a few moments and think of about four general things that you think women are typically looking for in a partner … now let’s see what scientific research has revealed.

What does the research say?

When looking at sex differences in what’s sought from a partner, two factors stand head and shoulders above the rest and are reported so often in the research literature that it would be remarkable if any researcher failed to find these results. In the previous article we discussed the fact that men are far more interested in a partner’s attractiveness than women are. The thing that women look for but men don’t is wealth.

In fact it is only a small minority of women who directly say they are looking for someone rich and we need to take a slightly broader view of what constitutes wealth or at least financial stability. Some of the phrases encountered do refer directly to wealth (e.g. ‘rich’ and ‘financially secure’) but in many cases women will say they are looking for a partner who has specific assets (e.g. ‘own house’) or employment (e.g. ‘business type’, ‘professional’ or even just ‘working’). Alternatively, the thing mentioned might be a personal attribute that, while it could be viewed as sought for its own sake, implies an aptitude or capacity to earn now or in the future (e.g. ‘ambitious’, ‘intelligent’ or ‘college educated’).

Taking money, assets, employment and aptitudes separately, in each case women are more likely to say they are looking for a partner with these characteristics than men are. When taken as an overall category of features implying wealth or the capacity to earn, research has consistently shown women are more interested in a partner having these features than men. For example, in 2003 I presented some results to colleagues based on my collection of nearly 5000 advertisements. Within this set of data, women were six times more likely than men to mention one of the above as a desirable characteristic in a partner.

Men seem to be fully aware of what women are looking for as they are consistently more likely than women to mention that they are financially secure, well educated, or have personal qualities that might be expected to lead to wealth or security. Often this is done directly through a bald mention of personal assets such as ‘own house and car’ (a phrase used so frequently it is often abbreviated to ‘OHAC’) or men may be more subtle and include something in their description that implies wealth such as ‘hobbies include good restaurants, opera, sailing and regular holidays overseas.’

Male interest in attractiveness and female interest in wealth are both pretty clear cut. You will recall the other things men wanted in a partner were also physical features of one kind or another. Women’s desires, however, are not as simple as this. Apart from wealth (or at least financial stability/promise) there are three other factors that women are just as interested in and just as likely to mention when seeking a partner.

The first of these is a difficult concept to pin down as different researchers view it in different ways depending on how phrases are grouped together. For example, if we consider phrases such as ‘expressive’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘open’ as referring to something different to phrases such as ‘warm’, ‘loving’ and ‘romantic’ then both our ‘expressiveness’ and our ‘warmth’ categories will have relatively smaller numbers of adverts than a general category containing all these phrases. Where researchers do group these together and look for what might be called positive emotional characteristics as a single category, then women are just as interested in finding a partner like this as they are in a partner’s wealth and resources. Men are also pretty interested in finding someone who they describe using phrases of this type but not as interested as women are. However men are certainly aware of women’s desires in this area as they are considerably more likely than women to describe themselves as having these female-valued emotional characteristics.

Another characteristic that men often lay claim to, and women often seek, is identified by phrases such as ‘honest’, ‘genuine’, ‘faithful’ and ‘committed’. If we take these phrases as indicating the desire for a partner who is open to having an ongoing relationship and who is not going to mess you around, then this is something women are also as interested in as wealth and emotionality.

The last female-valued attribute I want to mention is physical and is the only physical attribute that women seek more often than men do. It is height.

Whether a specific height is mentioned or whether it is simply the use of the adjective ‘taller’ when describing a partner, women are far more interested in a man’s height than men are in a woman’s, and they almost invariably want men who are tall, or at least taller than they are themselves. This result has been found in numerous studies of personal advertisement and was borne out again recently in a novel study of speed dating events. Researchers at the University of Essex looked at the characteristics of men who were more or less successful at getting invitations to follow-up dates at speed dating events. They found the men who were most successful at any particular event were usually among the tallest present.

Men seem to be aware of this female preference as they are far more likely to mention their height than women. This may be an assertion that they are ‘tall’ or they may give an actual height. However in my sample of personal advertisements, the average male height (where it is mentioned) is 5 feet 10 inches. This is significantly taller than the average adult male height in the UK population so either these men were inflating their heights or only the taller men mentioned it.

In summary, based on extensive research looking at what women say they want in a partner, the four main characteristics that emerge are wealth (or at least financial security), positive emotional characteristics (such a warmth, openness and sensitivity), someone who is honest and open to forming an ongoing relationship, and height.

How can we use this?

In the previous article I used this subheading as an opportunity to advise women on how they can present themselves to attract initial male attention. In this article I am not going to do this as I think the research above speaks for itself, and I want to explore briefly the moral dilemma I had about writing these articles, particularly this one. It is to do with deception.

There is no doubt that deception is widely used when seeking a date. From a psychological perspective, women’s use of makeup, hair dye and body shaping knickers are actually forms of deception that are specifically targeted at the physical features that men are interested in. Now I am not asserting a moral position here as these forms of deception are widespread and socially acceptable, not to mention (in the case of makeup) visually detectable. I more want to make the point that although they may not usually be viewed this way, they are in fact methods used by women to deceive men about their male-valued characteristics.

Given the above, we should also expect men will use deception to make themselves more attractive to women. Furthermore, deception is most likely to involve exactly the things that women seek in a partner. Unfortunately these are intangibles such as personality characteristics that cannot be immediately observed, leaving men much greater scope to lie.

If you are a man who is genuinely sensitive, financially stable, and looking for a real relationship then please do mention this in your personal advertisement as you will probably get a better response, but also bear in mind that many others will be (perhaps falsely) emphasising these features so don’t expect women to take any such claims at face value. Women looking for someone like this will and indeed should take the time to get to know someone. It is well known that women prefer to develop relationships slowly and given what I have said above, this is not only understandable but could also be viewed as another way to test a man’s character. If he really is sensitive and committed then a slow start to a relationship should not be a problem.

The next article takes some of the results mentioned in this and the previous article and uses these to explore theories of attraction. This may sound a bit dry but the main aim of the article is to introduce you to a current psychological theory of attraction that you can use to assess your own value in the ‘mating market’.