Your Looks and Your Inbox

November 17th, 2009 by Christian Rudder

This week we will confront an unfortunate truth of online dating: no matter how much time you spend polishing your profile, honing your IM banter, and perfecting your message introductions, it’s your picture that matters most.

We’re going to look at how your photos affect both the messages you get and how successful your own outgoing messages are. We all know that beautiful people are more successful daters, but let’s quantify by exactly how much.

To illustrate the exact spectrum of looks we’re talking about here, and to put some human faces on our discussion, I want to introduce a few photos of real OkCupid users. Here are two women near the top of our range.

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And here are two rated in the middle.

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As for photos at the bottom of the curve, it didn’t feel right to write someone and say “can I use you to illustrate the concept of ugliness on my blog?” so you’ll just have to extrapolate.

The above featured users have graciously agreed to let me post their pictures, so please don’t make them regret it. Funnily enough, I had to write about a dozen beautiful female users before anyone would even get back to me. Life imitates blog!

Anyhow, I know attractiveness is far from a universal concept, but maybe keep these folks in mind as we go through the data.

. . .

We’ll start with a simple line chart. The information I’ll present in this post is not normalized because, as we’ll see, it’s interesting how men and women evaluate looks differently.

Our chart shows how men have rated women, on a scale from 0 to 5. The curve is symmetric and surprisingly charitable: a woman is as likely to be considered extremely ugly as extremely beautiful, and the majority of women have been rated about “medium.” The chart looks normalized, even though it’s just the unfiltered opinions of our male users.

Given the popular wisdom that Hollywood, the Internet, and Photoshop have created unrealistic expectations of how a woman should look, I found the fairness and, well, realism, of this gray arc kind of heartening.

Now let’s superimpose the distribution of actual messages guys have sent:

When it comes down to actually choosing targets, men choose the modelesque. Someone like roomtodance
2/3 of male messages go to the top 1/3 of women.
above gets nearly 5 times as many messages as a typical woman and 28 times as many messages as a woman at the low end of our curve. Site-wide, two-thirds of male messages go to the best-looking third of women. So basically, guys are fighting each other 2-for-1 for the absolute best-rated females, while plenty of potentially charming, even cute, girls go unwritten.

The medical term for this is male pattern madness.

. . .

The female equivalent of the above chart shows a different bias:

As you can see from the gray line, women rate an incredible 80% of guys as worse-looking than medium. Very harsh. On the other hand, when it comes to actual messaging, women shift their expectations only just slightly ahead of the curve, which is a healthier pattern than guys’ pursuing the all-but-unattainable. But with the basic ratings so out-of-whack, the two curves together suggest some strange possibilities for the female thought process, the most salient of which is that the average-looking woman has convinced herself that the vast majority of males aren’t good enough for her, but she then goes right out and messages them anyway.

Just to illustrate that women are operating on a very different scale, here are just a few of the many, many guys we here in the office think are totally decent-looking, but that women have rated, in their occult way, as significantly less attractive than so-called “medium”:

Females of OkCupid, we site founders say to you: ouch! Paradoxically, it seems it’s women, not men, who have unrealistic standards for the “average” member of the opposite sex.

Finally, I just want to combine the two charts to emphasize how much fuller the inboxes of good-looking people get. I have scaled this graph to show multiples of messages sent to the lowest-rated people. For instance, the most attractive guys get 11× the messages the lowest-rated do. The medium-rated get about 4×.

This graph also dramatically illustrates just how much more important a woman’s looks are than a guy’s.

. . .

Now let’s take a look at how senders’ and recipients’ attractivenesses affect reply rates, not just the number of messages sent.

As you’d expect, more attractive people get more replies. And since they themselves get so many more messages than everyone else, they write back much less frequently. Here’s the graph for female senders, plotted in evenly-spaced “attractiveness groups.”

And here’s the one for male senders.

One interesting thing seems to be going on here: when the best-looking men write the worst-looking women, taste the rainbow,
of self-esteem issues
their message success rate takes a big hit. The knee-jerk response would be to somehow chalk it up to hunky spammers, but we very carefully control for that in these articles, and in any event why would better-looking girls be drastically more susceptible to it? It seems to be some kind of self-confidence thing.

As we did before, I’m going to consolidate the line charts to show just how your attractiveness changes how often your messages get responses.

. . .

This post has been the preamble to the larger discussion of “what makes a good profile?” We’ve spent a lot of time on OkTrends looking at messages, and since your profile is the other important place you express yourself, we thought it deserved the same treatment.

I wanted to address physical attractiveness right at the start, because obviously it’s a huge factor in how successful your profile is. In the upcoming posts in this series, we’re going to control for attractiveness, so that we can deliver real and useful advice for all the non-models out there.

We’ll look at, among other things: what makes a good picture (is it taken outside? inside? is it full-body? a head-shot? with your pet snake? what?), what kinds of self-presentation will get you the most messages (jokey? flirty? all business?), and how much profile information is too much. Should be good.



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