How online dating profiles vary by race

OkCupid Screenshot

Some of you may have already seen this, since it’s been pinging around the Internet for the last few days or so. But in case you haven’t: OkCupid, an online dating service, has been analyzing the profiles of its users, broken down by race (and a few other factors). Last week, it presented its findings online. As the OkCupid write-up describes:

“We selected 526,000 OkCupid users at random and divided them into groups by their (self-stated) race. We then took all these people’s profile essays (280 million words in total!) and isolated the words and phrases that made each racial group’s essays statistically distinct from the others’.

“For instance, it turns out that all kinds of people list sushi as one of their favorite foods. But Asians are the only group who also list sashimi; it’s a racial outlier. Similarly, as we shall see, black people are 20 times more likely than everyone else to mention soul food, whereas no foods are distinct for white people, unless you count diet coke.”

A necessary caveat, before going any further: This is not a rigorously controlled experiment (or, in fact, an experiment at all)–it’s one company’s analysis of its self-selected users. But it is intriguing. For me, that makes it worthy of a blog post.

The full post at OkCupid, which includes some great graphics, is worth a read, and it’s fascinating to click around the tag clouds the company has created. Here are a few tidbits I extracted:

  • The sports team that is most likely to set the profiles of white daters–both males and females–apart from others is the Red Sox.
  • Highly characteristic of profiles written by white females: the words “Nascar” and “mascara.”
  • Follow the books: White girls read–or at least, say that they do–The Time Traveler’s Wife and Eat, Pray, Love. Black girls prefer The Color Purple and The Bluest Eye. Latinas like 100 Years of Solitude.
  • Hispanic and Asian males both tend to mention their specific ethnicity (Dominican, Peruvian, Korean, etc.). Females, of either race, do not.
  • Asian men tend to use the entire phrase “I’m a simple guy.” Black men prefer “I am cool,” while Latino men say, “I’m a funny guy.” White guy phrases: “I’m a country boy” and “I can fix anything.”

Some of the comments people have written underneath the post express concern that the findings will merely reinforce racial stereotypes. Of course, that’s a possibility, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do these kinds of analyses. In fact, one of the things that most intrigues me about a study like this is that when people create a dating profile, they’re not actually listing, say, their 20 favorite things. They’re listing those personal preferences that they think will be most appealing to potential romantic partners. So, for instance, maybe white girls don’t really like Diet Coke more than girls of other races, but perhaps ‘Diet Coke’ appears in profiles of white daters more often because they are more likely to believe that it communicates something appealing about who they are. (Self-disciplined about weight and health, perhaps?) This is all speculative, of course, but what I think is interesting is that we’re getting insight not only into self-reported preferences but also into the traits and characteristics that daters think will be attractive to potential romantic partners.

One more interesting finding: The OkCupid folks have analyzed the grade level at which each profile is written and broken the data down by religion. Self-proclaimed atheists will be happy to know that their dating profiles are, on average, written at the highest level, followed closely by Buddhists. (Depressing stat: Even these most “advanced” profiles are written at a ninth-grade level.) Then, OkCupid plotted the writing proficiency of daters according to how serious they were about their religious beliefs. This is the resulting graph:

The OkCupid write up summarizes the finding: “Note that for each of the faith-based belief systems I’ve listed, the people who are the least serious about them write at the highest level. On the other hand, the people who are most serious about not having faith (i.e. the “very serious” agnostics and atheists) score higher than any religious groups.”

Facebook has already become a great source of data for social scientists. I haven’t seen nearly as many researchers using data gleaned from dating sites, but I expect that it won’t be long before we start seeing a lot more peer-reviewed studies along the lines of what OkCupid has just done.

Extra credit assignment: Go over to OkCupid and concoct the most race-confounding profile you can manage, mixing and matching profile characteristics typical of each race. Time. Starts. Now!

Images: 1. Screenshot from OkCupid 2. Graph created by OkCupid, available here.

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2 Responses to How online dating profiles vary by race

  1. razib says:

    i’ve been off the market (and still am) for the whole time that internet dating has taken off. it’s one of those areas where many of my friends have anecdotes and truisms which later get confirmed by social science.

    as for why minority men specify ethnicity, there’s a moderate robust trend of women being notably more race conscious than men on these sites (though asian women least), so they might be trying to narrow down the potential target audience. men are much less discriminatory so women may not find any value from this sort of specificity. i first heard of this effect when a few frustrated asian men kept their biodata the same but swapped in a pic of an average looking white dude (and changed their race) and started getting much better responses.

    here’s one study which illustrates the discrepancy by sex:

    (though i’ve run into so many of these over the years that i stopped blogging them because they’re not generating novel findings, just reiterating the trend, though it does get discussion and traffic :-)

  2. Emily Anthes says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for the link and the insight!