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In the early 2000s I recall Joel Grus telling me how reality television would become a pretty powerful exploratory tool for social science. I’m not quite sure of that now (there here’s a game-theoretic analysis of Survivor!). For example, consider The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. If you watched this series you might think that we’re still living in the same country where a episode of Star Trek was not shown in the South because of an interracial kiss. In some ways “appointment television” has become a lagging indicator.

Rather, it looks like firms whose bread & butter is “the social web” are where the gold in social science is. Consider the OkTrends blog, which is affiliated with and has access to OkCupid. These companies have sample sizes not in the thousands, but in the millions! The Financial Times has a fascinating piece on the “secret sauce” of, Inside It’s all about the algorithm:

With the number of paying subscribers using Match approaching 1.8 million, the ­company has had to develop ever more ­sophisticated programs to manage, sort and pair the world’s singles. Central to this effort has been the development, over the past two years, of an improved matchmaking algorithm….

“People are complex. You’re constantly making trade-offs about who’s too tall, too short, too smart and too dumb. People come in and tell us a bit about what they’re looking for. But what you say and what you do can be different.”

Academics call this “dissonance”. “It’s a theme that runs through social psychological literature,” says Andrew Fiore, a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, who works on ­computer-mediated communication. “We don’t know ourselves very well on a descriptive level.”

This is all great, but it falls into the category of generic platitudes about avowed and revealed preferences. Most people believe in fidelity, but a subset of these people cheat. The juicy stuff is in the specific patterns is finding:

As a result, Match began “weighting” variables differently, according to how users behaved. For example, if conservative users were actually looking at profiles of liberals, the algorithm would learn from that and recommend more liberal users to them. Indeed, says Thombre, “the politics one is quite interesting. Conservatives are far more open to reaching out to someone with a different point of view than a liberal is.” That is, when it comes to looking for love, conservatives are more open-minded than liberals.

This is intuitively surprising, but more scienced up it is rather strange because one of the psychological underpinnings for why someone is more likely to be liberal than conservative is “openness to experience.” But there’s openness, and then there’s openness. I suppose one could suggest that the aversion to political conservatives amongst liberals in’s data set might have to do with the fact that liberals feel like they know what they’re getting when they date a political conservative, and it doesn’t tingle their novelty seeking tendencies.

That being said, my personal experience growing up as an adolescent in a overwhelmingly politically conservative milieu (the Intermontane West) and spending most of my adulthood in very liberal cities (e.g., Portland, Oregon, Berkeley, California) is that the stereotyping and intolerance I’ve experienced as a libertarian-conservative atheist had more to due with my irreligiosity in the former context and my politics in the latter. One might suggest then that the appropriate analog for the Christian nationalist religious identity of many conservatives amongst secular liberals is the set of political positions which they espouse. Both signal virtue and righteousness, even if the details differ.

Though one should be careful of taking one glimpse into’s data set too seriously. Context matters, and I don’t know if there’s selection bias here (one suspects that eHarmony has a more conservative clientele, so right-wingers using might be more adventuresome by nature). Unfortunately I doubt that those outside of these firms will have much access all their delicious information, but people leave companies. I recall a friend telling me that he overheard some Facebook employees batting around how to predict when you were about to unfriend someone a few years back.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Data, Data Analysis, Dating 
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Several people have inquired as to my opinion on the OKCupid post The Mathematics Of Beauty. I’ve blogged data from this dating website in the past, in particular, the differential race consciousness of women vs. men. But that material is a different class than the current post. As I have noted before, there is a robust result in the social science research over the past decade which suggests that women express & reveal more race consciousness than men when it comes dating & mating. The previous OKCupid analysis wasn’t ground-breaking, it simply added some wrinkles into a series of patterns which were replicated in the literature. The current results are different insofar as I haven’t followed the academic literature which relates to this in detail. This matters because unlike most of my peers I’ve done very little online dating (basically 2 weeks in the summer of 2002), and so can’t bring a personal familiarity with the topic to the discussion. To be sure, plenty of my friends have discussed their issues with online dating with me, so I’m not ignorant of the phenomenon. My male friends routinely complain how difficult it is to get the attention of women who are bombarded by messages from all directions. A female friend who is in her mid-30s chronologically, but physically resembles a women in her 20s, has complained how men clearly have automatic age filters set for searches which are working against her.

Let’s start at the beginning. To the left you see a scatter plot of # of messages received by women per month as a function of their rated attractiveness. They controlled for background variables (e.g., race). On the one hand, the results aren’t surprising. You see that more attractive women receive more messages. But on the other hand, the residual (noise) around the trend line is enormous, especially in the top half the distribution. I am personally rather surprised at the enormous variance of message # at the higher ratings. But here’s an important point: this is the mean rating of attractiveness. It turns out there’s a substantial variance around the means of attractiveness for any given mean value. There are two ways to look at this. It seems there is a general consensus about a mean of a distribution as to someone’s attractiveness level. In other words, you don’t have a preponderance of uniform distributions, suggesting that attractiveness is extremely plastic. This is in line with what evolutionary psychologists have found: people from “small scale” societies can ascertain who is, or isn’t, attractive in a set of photos of Europeans. But there’s another part of the story: differences in opinions about physical attractiveness of the same person from the vantage point of outsiders.

To the right you have the top line results. The plot shows the response # as a function of variance of assessments for women at the 80th percentile of attractiveness. As you can see it looks like the number of messages starts to rise as a linear function above the center of the variance range. Below the curve you see an equation which predicts the number of messages as a function of the shape of the distribution. Apparently OKCupid attractiveness measures range from 1 to 5, and the coefficients in front of the values indicate the effect upon the final number of messages. So, if all the men rated a woman a 5, then you’d expect an increase of messages above expectation. The weird thing from the equation is this: according to the model it is better to have everyone evaluate you a 1 than everyone evaluate you a 4. Look at the signs of the coefficient. I don’t personally believe this outcome is valid. In fact, I assume that there’s no one in their data who was rated a 1 by everyone, or, a 4 by everyone. These sorts of models are giving us precise inferences, but the models themselves are only rough correspondences to broader underlying dynamics (which is why people argue over which model better “fits” data and such). Pushing a model to ludicrous extremes doesn’t necessarily give us insight. Rather, it suggests that we should be careful about confusing the model for reality (just as we should be careful about confusing a mean for the totality of the shape of the distribution). I suspect the equation would be different if one constrained the range of attractivenes (e.g., 50th to 100th percentile vs. 25th to 75th percentile), but the qualitative result would hold. The model may be precise, but the inferences we make should be a little less precise.

The authors of the OKCupid post implicitly give a nod to this, illustrating the peculiar pattern of variation in message responses. Their data set indicates that a woman who received more extreme reactions would receive more messages than a woman who received more uniform reactions, even if the latter had a higher average rating than the former. This is certainly counterintuitive. What’s going on here?

First, let’s present the OKCupid explanation:

Suppose you’re a man who’s really into someone. If you suspect other men are uninterested, it means less competition. You therefore have an added incentive to send a message. You might start thinking: maybe she’s lonely. . . maybe she’s just waiting to find a guy who appreciates her. . . at least I won’t get lost in the crowd. . . maybe these small thoughts, plus the fact that you really think she’s hot, prod you to action. You send her the perfectly crafted opening message.


On the other hand, a woman with a preponderance of ‘4’ votes, someone conventionally cute, but not totally hot, might appear to be more in-demand than she actually is. To the typical man considering her, she’s obviously attractive enough to create the impression that other guys are into her, too. But maybe she’s hot enough for him to throw caution (and grammar) to the wind and send her a message. It’s the curse of being cute.

In some ways this was the model that my college roommate was espousing. His argument was that the key was to find a woman who you found more attractive than the average bear. That way, you were in a better bargaining position to select good mates from this pool of women, who don’t necessarily know their own leverage over you, because they have to assume that you’re the typical male. The “win-win” scenario is where two people perceive each other to be better “catches” than the general population when it comes to looks. There are a lot of such cases presumably because of the residual you see above, but there are plenty of other factors in mates where one can be choosy. By maximizing the disjunction between between population-wide assessment of attractiveness and your own perception of a woman’s attractiveness you can “negotiate” for someone “better” on the other characteristics you value than you otherwise might be able to. If you want to be happy the key isn’t to find a woman you find ugly, it is to find a woman who you value more than the going “market” rate.

Alex Tabarrok has another plausible explanation:

….Rather I think there are certain types of beauty that greatly attract some men but repel others. Analagously, some people will pay hundreds of dollars for an ounce of caviar that other people won’t eat for free. The reason some people love caviar, however, is not that other people dislike it. Instead, it just so happens, that the thing that some people love is the very thing that repels others. We see the same phenomena in art, some people love John Cage, other people would rather listen to nothing at all….

Alex’s model is not totally exclusive of the one OKCupid was espousing. Both of them clearly suggest that distinctiveness matters. Individuals have their own “brands,” and accentuating brands can allow for your “market segment” to target you. Back during my 2 weeks of internet dating I put “atheist” under religion, and indicated that I did not want inquiries from someone who was religious. I was well aware that this was putting me into a “sausage surplus” market, as there seems to be a preponderance of males among those who espouse such frank irreligiosity. But I recall hoping that my honesty about this would at least attract the attention of women who shared a similar disinclination toward religion (this turned out be a good move, a woman who was raised Jehovah’s Witness but had left religion contacted me). That being said, I did have my limits. I did not play up the fact that I was a Republican, as I judged that the pool of atheist Republican women in Portland, Oregon (where I lived at the time), was very small. It must also be admitted that my personal experience is that similar politics is less important in the success of a relationship than a common “metaphysic.” In my case this is partly probably a function of a general weak passion for politics at this stage of my life. But even when I was a very strident libertarian politics was never a litmus test for relationships and friendships.

At this point I’d like to introduce a stylized model. In Survival of the Prettiest Nancy Etcoff introduced me to two different types of beauty. The first you should be well aware of: more symmetry means that you are more attractive. Composites of a range of individuals are almost always more attractive than the individuals themselves. This is attributed to the asymmetry which is introduced in development due stochastic, environmental, and genetic factors. Being lopsided is not a good sign of health, whether the cause is endogenous or exogenous. But there is another sort of beauty: that focused on secondary sexual characteristics, which are sex specific. Symmetrical beauty is applicable in the same manner to both sexes. This secondary sexual characteristic component is not. A powerful robust chin which may indicate rugged good looks in a man does not do so on a woman. Large eyes, a small nose, and a pert mouth, may be attractive on a woman, but they may seem ludicrous on a man (unless you’re Speed Racer). In the case of symmetry being at the mean is the best. But in the case of secondary sexual characteristics exhibiting some deviation from the mean of your sex in one particular direction is probably ideal. Let’s call this “good” deviation.

Finally, there’s a third component. To some extent this is like “non-shared environment” in many behavior genetic models. It’s a whole host of factors thrown together to explain the residual which can not be accounted for by the two other variables. So that’s why I labelled it “X” factor. Probably the easiest sub-component to pick out here are cultural influences as a function of space and time. To the right you see two photos. One is of the Bollywood actress Karisma Kapoor, while the other is of the Indian actress Freida Pinto. To be honest the photo of Ms. Kapoor is probably more flattering when it comes to the range of her photos than that of Ms. Pinto. A large fraction of the reason that Ms. Kapoor is a Bollywood star is contingent. She’s from a showbiz family, and nepotism seems to count for a lot in the film entertainment industry in India and the USA. But another factor is that Ms. Kapoor is extremely “fair” by Indian standards. In contrast, Ms. Pinto is more conventionally Indian looking. My personal experience is that Westerners, and brown folk raised in the West, have a hard time understanding how someone who is as “conventional” looking as Ms. Kapoor could be a leading lady. But she is very unconventional in complexion in South Asia, and in a good way. In contrast, Ms. Pinto is more conventionally good looking. She is of normal coloring for a South Asian. I am willing to bet that most Westerners would judge Ms. Pinto more attractive than Ms. Kapoor without makeup. Anyone who has encountered 19th century Chinese foot binding literary porn will be rather aware of how cultural expectations and norms can reshape and distort beauty standards. In a Western context the shift toward slimness away from a more ample form is often used to illustrate the principle of variance of tastes and standards over time. But these realities should not allow us to forget that common factors do tend to remain invariant. It is famously observed that though the size of the ideal woman in the West has shifted a great deal, the ideal ratio of proportions have moved far less.

But there may be genuine differences which are not so temporally or cultural sensitive. Another component of the third dimension of assessment of attractiveness is probably just individual differences. The domain of behavior genetics, as opposed to evolutionary psychology. There are after all “legs” and “breasts” and “butt” men. Granted, the proportions vary across cultures, but there nevertheless remains a mix in most cultures of preferences. I believe this aspect is the one that may explain much of the pattern in the OKCupid results. There are men who prefer very small breasts, men who prefer corpulent women, and so forth. Whatever the origin of these preferences, even assuming relative cultural invariance in the sample population (I believe this is so for the middle to upper middle class Western target audience of OKCupid) there will remain individual differences of taste and preference, as noted by Alex Tabarrok. Women sharply deviated from the population norm on many traits may produce an average decline in aggregate attractiveness rating, but still may command a premium among the target audience of men who prefer the deviated traits (e.g., attractiveness drops as the number and extremity of piercings increases for the general population, but increases for a minority who find that attractive). Quite often it is preferable to be a second choice, but in this case women who are blandly “cute” may suffer because of the way in which men allocate their time and energy. Dating sites such as OKCupid have many more potential target matches than not, so why not focus on those individuals with whom one is the best match with, instead of the second best? In this way OKCupid is perhaps very different from the small villages or tribes of yore; you have thousands of “first matches.”

Finally, I want to observe something about the images on the OKCupid post. Quite often it seemed that the women who had higher variance ratings used more salient photos, with harsher or higher key lighting. A woman who uses a classic “MySpace angle” photo that’s a touch on the blurry side may get higher ratings than a woman who uses a more crisp image without makeup, but I suspect that many men would prefer the latter to the former. One can’t rate someone lower just for being clever with lighting and selection biasing, but, one may change one’s behavior explicitly and implicitly taking that into account.

In any case, I’ve gone on long enough. I was asked my opinion, and I gave it. What’s your take? (this is not a call for retarded comments by the way. You know who you are)

Image credit: Xavier449, Bollywood Hungama, Lili Ferraz.

• Category: Science • Tags: Beauty, Behavior Genetics, Culture, Data Analysis, Dating 
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Big Think has a post, Do Women Value Ethnicity Over Income in a Mate?:

The results are striking. An African-American man would have to earn $154,000 more than a white man in order for a white woman to prefer him. A Hispanic man would need to earn $77,000 more than a white man, and Asian man would need, remarkably, an additional $247,000 in additional annual income.

So do women value ethnicity over income in a mate? They certainly seem too. If income was the more important factor in mate choice these numbers would be small; it would take very little additional income to entice a woman to date a man of a different race. The fact that the numbers are so large suggests that a man’s race is significantly more important that his income.

And men? Well the problem is that men don’t seem to care about income at all. So even though their behaviour suggests they care less about their partner’s race than women do, the income needed to encourage them to make the trade-off between races is incalculably large. To really estimate how much men care about race you would have to find a different measure, like perhaps physical beauty.

First, there has been research controlling for physical beauty. So the white male disinclination toward black females can be accounted for mostly by the fact that they aren’t as physically attracted to them. When you limit the sample of black women to those which they are physically attracted to the discrepancy mostly disappears. In contrast, when you similarly constrain the samples of black men which white women judge as attractive the discrepancy in dating preference remains (the same when you do so for Asian men).

All this is not new. I blogged this two years ago, and have gotten bored with the topic (there a regular series of papers which confirm the finding in different circumstances). The sex difference in race preference in the dating literature seems relatively robust. Women care about the race of their partners far more than men, all things equal (in fact, much of the literature suggests men are not concerned about race very much when you control for other background variables). If a site brands itself as “Big Think”, it would be nice to add some value.

I’ll offer a hypothesis in keeping with Ann Althouse’s rule-of-thumb in regards to discussing sex differences in polite company: make sure to make it seem as if women are superior in some fashion. Perhaps women simply have a lower time preference? That is, they’re thinking of long-term consequences. Interracial divorce rates are higher, so women may be making implicit calculations as to the probable success of a relationship as opposed to the short-term benefits of a pairing which men fixate upon. Additionally they may be more liable to “think of the children.” Though I’m generally skeptical of the social science research in this area which indicate that mixed-race children experience stress because of their background, there are plenty of high profile media accounts of people of mixed-race and their “struggles” with their identity. This may shape perceptions of the quality of life of the children. In other words, women aren’t being shallow at all, race is an excellent proxy for all sorts of social-cultural variates which might effect the outcomes of a relationship success, and also the fullness of life which their offspring may experience. Women are then in this model being prudent by using a coarse variate, race, as a proxy for the multi-textured reality of how race is lived in America, and how it matters deeply in the lives of human beings.

To test this sort of model we need data from other societies. There are confounds in this analysis in the USA because Asians, for example, are a small minority who as a matter of necessity can’t really limit their dating pool as much as whites. Additionally, it would be useful to take a fine-grained look at Hispanic dating patterns. About ~50% of Hispanic/Latino Americans identify as white, ~40% as “other”, while ~10% a mix with a substantial number of blacks. The race preference may be mostly a function of perception of cultural values, in which case you’d see that Hispanics don’t exhibit any sex bias in race at all. Then it would not be a matter of women being more racist, but being far less cosmopolitan! Oops, I mean that the low time preference is not operating through a racial proxy but a cultural proxy which is correlated with race. In other words, women are culturally sensitive, while men are culturally insensitive.

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"