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.

[show men instead]

And here are two rated in the middle.

[show men instead]

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.

556 Responses to “Your Looks and Your Inbox”

  1. daveo says:

    Well we already knew women were completely nuts. Where’s the news here?

    btw, the one’s you’ve rated near the top, I would rate “probably jailbait.” They remind me of my niece, who’s in high school.

    The ones you’ve rated as in the middle, are very attractive to me. But, I’m a little bit older.

  2. nowcinterested says:

    I ( nowcinterested ) wonder why people are so unwilling to take a moment and write back to someone else. If a man or woman takes the time to contact you, you should at the very least be polite. Give them a chance. Life is all about the journey. You never know who or where your next great relationship will come from. He might be your soul-mate!
    And if you happen to be good looking or intelligent or wealthy… count your blessing and be kind. As an attractive woman I have always been thankful and know it was just luck from my genes. I don’t know about other women but I almost always write back if someone emails me. Just about the only time I don’t is if I did not get your post, or I get a feeling that he is SPAM or he is very rude sending me what he thinks are hot sex shots.
    Remember we all deserve a little kindness. Write and respond.

    Another thing to note is that some (older) women were raised to let a man know you are interested, send clear messages and let him take the next step. If you recieve an email saying I was adding you to my favorites list or gave you 4 or 5 stars there is a good chance I want you to write to me. And If I write please write back even if you think I am to far or not what you are looking for.

    Thanks nowcinterested

  3. Artemisdraw says:

    I think this shows, overall, that looks are more important to men than they are to women – not that women are “crazy” in writing or responding to less-than-model-looking guys, but that maybe they are more realistic in recognizing and accepting that looks don’t count for everything. Does that mean guys are shallow because the looks are what draw them in to begin with? No. It’s just a function of how men operate differently from women. From what I’ve noticed, men are ultimately interested in the same kinds of quality interaction, personality and connection that women are interested in. It may just be that the looks are what get them interested to start with. I would bet that the results would settle out a LOT differently if OkC charted the success rate of relationships by attractiveness over the long term, versus simply an initial response, which would be a lot more telling.

  4. insonmiacgrl says:

    Harsh on staff! You’re all above medium. But, both winning pixs are doing the half smile. Not the full- like the mediums, and the mediums are older. Should take away be do the 1/2 or try to look younger and wear a tank top?

  5. Azi says:

    I don’t rate people by their pictures. I rate the by the content of their profile and how compatible I think we would be. I find that most of my female friends who use this site feel the same way. It’s more the profile that says a lot about them then their picture.

  6. LR says:

    It’s no wonder guys are working hard like crazy to look attractive to a girl. They post pictures of themselves provocatively dressed and digitally enhanced, fashion model-looking photos of themselves online to get girls because girls are extremely shallow when it comes to guys. And if guys don’t look like male fashion models or Brad Pitt, they get ditched and go nuts, stalking and killing the girl who ditched him as well as the other hot, handsome guy she’s with.