The Psychology of Online Dating: The Psychologist’s Viewpoint

Psychologists interested in dating and attraction have learned a great deal by reading and examining the personal advertisements and ‘lonely hearts’ pages of local and national newspapers. Since we psychologists have benefited from the people who use these services it seems only right that some of the things we’ve found should be given back. In this series of articles I will outline some of the more practically useful findings that have come from this research and provide a summary of the results reported in academic psychology journals, written for those who probably have the greatest interest in this knowledge: the daters themselves.

There is quite a bit of material to cover so I have organised it into a series of six articles:

The Psychologist’s Viewpoint

This article gives an idea of the scope of research using personal advertisements, the way personal profiles are used in research, and the kind of things psychologists can find out when they put their minds to it.

He wants and she is

This outlines research into the things that men say they are looking for in a partner. Alongside this we look at how women describe themselves. Combining these we can assess how accurately women understand what men want and use the right kind of language to attract a man’s interest. This one is particularly useful for the girls and should help you write something for the ‘in your own words’ bit of your profile.

She wants and he is

This article gives the opposite perspective to the previous one, looking at the things that women say they want in a partner and the way that men describe themselves. Do these match up? Have men got it right or are they missing the point completely? This one might help the boys rethink the content of their ‘own words’ parts of their dating profiles.

Like for Like or Opposites Attract?

This article summarises the results in the previous two and uses these to outline the current psychological theories of attraction. It explains how ‘like attracts like’ and ‘opposites attract’ can both be true and how this can help you when you are first making contact with someone after reading their profile.

Blitzers, Boasters and Being Choosy

This article looks at research into general approaches to dating including the results found by researchers who experimentally placed different versions of personal advertisements and then sat back to see how many and what kind of responses they got.

Summary and Practical Uses

The final article of this series summarises all that has gone before and places this new knowledge firmly in the context of online dating, describing how these results can be constructively used to make fewer mistakes and to improve your chances of attracting responses to your profile and getting a positive response to your first approach to someone.

Before getting into the results of the research we need to take a brief tour around the ways in which research psychologists use personal advertisements and the kinds of things they can find, so we have some idea of the sort of things that psychologists can and cannot say about personal advertisements and internet dating profiles.

Content Analysis

Personal advertisements have been a rich source of information for social scientists investigating dating behaviours. To give an idea of the scale of this enterprise, my own research in this area is based on the analysis of nearly five thousand advertisements collected from UK local newspapers. Apart from this I have copies of more than sixty research reports published by colleagues in Brazil, Canada, Hungary, Japan, Poland, UK and USA. This adds up to about thirty thousand individual profiles that have been analysed by psychologists, sociologists and other professional researchers. Most of this research has used printed personal ads extracted from newspapers and magazines as these are more useful to us (as explained below) but the information and insights gained can be applied to any situation where first impressions come from written descriptions, so these results are directly relevant and useful to people using internet dating sites.

Creating a profile for an internet dating site usually involves describing yourself on a whole host of listed options such as eye colour (blue, green etc.), smoking habit, attractiveness, salary etc. This information is usually entered into the site using a form. Within this form each person makes their own choices from the options available but because it is a form, everyone has to mention the same kinds of things. In a sense, the dating site has already decided what the important features are and you simply tick the correct boxes when describing yourself and describing the sort of person you want to meet.

With printed personal advertisements there is no detailed form to fill in and you can write whatever you want. The only restriction is on the number of words with an escalating charge per word up to a maximum limit. As a result these advertisements are quite short, averaging about 22 words. This is typically enough space to mention about nine things, whether these are your own attributes (age, hair and eye colour, looks) or things you are looking for in a partner (sense of humour, marital status, age range, personality, height). Given these restrictions we can reasonably expect that people mention the most important things as they see it, so the content of these advertisements tell us what characteristics the writers think are important to the other sex, and what key things they are looking for themselves. For example, a personal advertisement that says “Stunning, curvy and adventurous 22 year old blonde female is looking for a financially secure older man, ideally with own hair and teeth, who will spoil her rotten.” gives a pretty clear indication of what matters to this person and what she is offering in return.

Researchers have taken thousands of personal advertisements and analysed them to look for general patterns. From this, they have identified some very clear differences between the kinds of things that are important to men and women when looking for a partner. They have also looked at how well the self descriptions of each sex matches the features that the other sex says they want, giving an indication of how much each sex understands about what the other sex is looking for. Results from this kind of research are discussed in the articles He wants and she is, and She wants and he is.

Apart from the specific attributes and features mentioned, there are also more general differences in how people write these descriptions. For example women tend to give more detailed information about the sort of person they are looking for than men, while men are more focussed on describing themselves. Looking at a profile from this perspective tells us quite a lot about the approach people take to dating, including whether they are looking for a few high quality matches or just want as many dates as they can possibly get. This research is summarised in the article Blitzers, Boasters and Being Choosy.

Knowing how people describe themselves and the sort of thing they are looking for also allows us to look at broader questions such as whether people are looking for others who are similar to themselves or would prefer a partner who is different but, in some sense, complementary. This is discussed in the article Like for Like or Opposites Attract where we find that both are true once we understand a more basic and useful theory of attraction.

Experimental Research

Apart from examining the advertisements that real people have written in the hope of finding a partner, psychologists have occasionally become active researchers and have placed experimental personal advertisements to see how many and what type of response they get. For example, if two almost identical advertisements are placed and one receives twice as many responses as the other, this tells us that the difference between these ads (which may be as small as one word) has a big effect on the chances of attracting a date.

Some psychologists have also used this type of research to investigate the sort of things that men and women write when responding to an advertisement. This has given researchers another way to classify the different approaches to dating and to identify groups such as the ‘blitzers’ who send responses to everyone in the hope that some of them will score a hit. Results from this experimental research are presented in the article Blitzers, Boasters and Being Choosy.

This article has outlined the organisation and content of this series, has introduced the ways in which psychologists approach dating research, and has indicated the sort of things they may be able to see from their viewpoint as researchers.

In the next article we move on to looking at some actual findings. He wants and she is looks at the features that women tend to emphasis when advertising themselves, the things that men are actually looking for, and whether or not womens’ self descriptions suggest they are marketing themselves well and have an accurate insight into what men want.