In 2014, approximately 10 million people used the online dating website OkCupid. While for users this means that billions of messages were exchanged and (probably) thousands of bad dates were had, for OkCupid CEO Christian Rudder, this means there’s an endless pool of data on interpersonal interactions begging to be analyzed.
In his 2014 book Dataclysm, Rudder analyzes data from OkCupid along with other social media sites (e.g. Twitter) to teach us about how we see ourselves, and how we interact with others. While many of his findings are noteworthy, he describes a phenomenon particularly relevant to the potential evolutionary mechanisms that influence mate choice.
Rudder asked men from ages 20 to 50 to rate the attractiveness of women of all ages. He then figured out the age of the women who looked best (i.e. got the highest ratings) to men who were 20, to men who were 21, and so on.
Men who were 20 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive. Men who were 21 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive. Jumping forward a bit, men who were 30 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive, as did men who were 31, as did men who were 46, as did men who were 47…
As you can see, the men in Rudder’s sample prefer more or less the same thing across all ages: women who are 20. From an evolutionary standpoint, this kind of innate preference for women of this age makes some sense: a woman’s chance of conception is highest in her early 20s, and decreases continually thereafter.
So, if we believe that some behaviors and preferences in men are driven by evolutionary mechanisms to facilitate the creation of offspring, men with preferences for women at peak fertility could potentially be more reproductively successful than men with preferences for women who are older and thus less fertile.>
Interestingly, this preference of men for women in their early 20s did not translate to actual behavior on the site. When indicating their preferences, most men said they were looking for someone around their age, and sent the most messages to women within 10 years of their own age.
This disconnect between what men say they want and who they rate as most attractive may be in part due to what women on the site want. While men rate women who are 20 as most attractive regardless of their own age, women rate men who are in their own age range as the most attractive, and indicate that they are looking for someone in that same range.
What does this mean practically? While a 40 year old man messaging many 20-year-old women on the site may get some positive responses, he is much more likely to get them from women in their 30s and 40s, and should take this into account to maximize his changes of finding love (or whatever else he may be looking for on OkCupid).
For more findings about how Twitter has influenced the way we write, which phrases are most common in White OkCupid users and least common in Asian users, and why the variability in your attractiveness rating is more important than your average rating, check out Rudder’s book, Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity–What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves.