Opposites attract? Not so much

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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FiveThirtyEight is one of a crop of new online journalistic enterprises shaking up digital media.

The founder and figurehead of the ESPN-backed site is Nate Silver, the former New York Times blogger and much admired statistics guru.

But it’s not all politics and sport. Another essential news food group, romance, is there, as part of the “life” section.

Emma Pierson examines the idea that opposites attract. The maxim is supported by a US survey showing 86% of singles seek a partner who “complements them” rather than “resembles them”, she writes.

The trouble is, when you parse the data from online dating, that result is dramatically contradicted. Pierson has studied more than a million successful matches achieved via the site eHarmony, and “the data reveals a clear pattern”.

People are interested in people like themselves. Women on eHarmony favour men who are similar not just in obvious ways — age, attractiveness, education, income — but also in less apparent ones, such as creativity. Even when eHarmony includes a quirky data point — like how many pictures are included in a user’s profile — women are more likely to message men similar to themselves. In fact, of the 102 traits in the data set, there was not one for which women were more likely to contact men with opposite traits.

Men were a little more open-minded. For 80% of traits, they were more willing to message those different from them. They still preferred mates who were similar in terms of height or attractiveness, but they cared less about these traits — and they didn’t care much at all about other things women cared about, like similarity in education level or number of photos taken. They cared less about whether their match shared their ethnicity.

In summary:

The simple pattern: People who display a certain trait prefer other people who display that trait; people who don’t prefer people who don’t.

The subtler pattern: Everyone prefers people with a certain trait, but people who have the trait themselves display a stronger preference for other people with that trait.

While Pierson accepts that people can be attracted “for reasons you can’t quantify”, it’s hard to avoid this conclusion, as contained in the headline: “People may really just want to date themselves.”

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