When people logon to a dating site, whether it is UK.Cupid.com or Match.com, what determines who ends up with who? Although there are a myriad of factors that lead individuals to form romantic attachments, a longstanding theory in relationship science makes a simple prediction. Specifically, the matching hypothesis predicts that people will pair up with a partner who has the same social mate value.1 Your social mate value includes all of the factors that go into making you more or less desirable to date such as your physical attractiveness, your personality, etc. Essentially, according to the matching hypothesis, if you’re in London dating and are a “7” out of 10 in terms of mate value you’ll end up with another “7,” or very close. “10’s” go with “10’s,” “2’s” with “2’s” and so on.
Perhaps due to the matching hypothesis’s intuitive appeal, the field of social psychology has largely accepted it as true, despite a general lack of empirical support. To address this gap between theory and data, researchers from the University of California – Berkeley tested the matching hypothesis across several studies.2
How They Did It
In Study 1, nearly 200 participants completed an online questionnaire about their own mate value/self-worth based on their physical attractiveness, self-esteem, likeability, warmth, kindness, and trustworthiness. Next, participants imagined they were looking for a partner on an online dating site and created their own dating profile. Participants then looked at profiles of potential partners that the researchers varied by physical attractiveness (high, medium, low) and by the attractiveness of the text description (high, medium, or low attractiveness), rating each of the 9 profiles based on whether the person in the profile “would probably respond favorably to me if I contacted him/her.”
In Study 2, the researchers looked at actual profile pictures from an online dating site and the profile pictures of the people with whom that person contacted. Specifically, researchers randomly selected profile pictures from 60 male and 60 female users. The researchers then looked at the site activity log to see who those users (i.e., the “initiators”) contacted; the researchers then pulled the “targets” profile pictures as well. Next, a bunch of judges rated the attractiveness of the initiator and target photos (nearly 1000 pictures in all). Researchers also looked at whom the initiators contacted and whether the target reciprocated by responding back.
What They Found
Relative to those with low mate value/self-worth, participants with high mate value were more interested in contacting potential partners with high mate value. For potential partners with low mate value the opposite was true, such that participants with low mate value were more interested in making contact than those participants who had high mate value. Though this pattern supports the matching hypothesis, overall lower mate value participants did prefer high mate value potential partners. Thus, it seems that while everyone would prefer a high value partner, only those with self-perceived high value have the confidence to pursue the 9s and 10s out there.
In Study 2, initiators on the dating site contacted targets that were more attractive than them (i.e., out of their league), which does not support the matching hypothesis (which would have predicted less attractive initiators preferred less attractive targets). However, there was evidence for matching in terms of who reciprocated the contact. Reciprocity was more likely when attractive initiators contacted attractive targets and when less attractive initiators contacted less attractive targets (i.e., when people stayed within their own league).
What These Results Mean For You
Overall, the message seems to be: what you want and what you get may be two different things. Study 1 shows that everyone prefers a potential partner with high mate value. No surprise there. However, consistent with the matching hypothesis, only those with similarly high mate values sought out the high value potential partners. Importantly, this was self-imposed behavior. Study 1 can’t say whether the lower value initiators would be successful if they had tried to “date up.” Rather, the study suggests people don’t generally try.
Study 2 shows, that at least when it comes to online dating, this is what people try to do. They try to “date up” by pursuing others who are more attractive and essentially out of their league. It is likely that the low stakes environment of online dating where advances don’t result in outward or obvious rejection, but rather a much easier to handle lack of response. As a result, a “shotgun” approach where you contact lots of more attractive people is a more viable strategy that is less threatening to your ego. And really, you can’t blame a guy or gal for trying. But if you’re going for a higher success rate, Study 2 suggests that you’re better off sticking to others in your own league.
Thus, the matching hypothesis operates on the more practical level of what type of partner you actually get, and not in terms of what people want. All in all this makes perfect sense. In an ideal world you may really want the best highest paying job there is. Yet, because of all of the other applicants, some of whom are more qualified than you, you end up matched to a job that most closely matches your skills and abilities.
So if you ever find yourself online dating, while you may want to “date up” by pairing up with the most attractive partners, unless you are also one of the most attractive you’ll have better luck playing within your league.
1Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1966). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 508-516.
2Taylor, L. S., Fiore, A. T., Mendelsohn, G. A., & Cheshire, C. (2011). “Out of my league”: A real-world test of the matching hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 942–954. doi: 10.1177/0146167211409947
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.