Online dating: the physical attraction problem
In order for an online dating service to work, it has to reliably move people past the merely physical and help them perceive their match’s real attractiveness.
In a post a couple weeks ago I mused about how the online dating world is plagued by what I guess we’ll call the “physical attraction problem.” I touched of a bit of controversy, both here and on Facebook, because there was some disconnect between what I set out to say and what people wound up hearing. Perhaps that’s on me. In any case, the question of attraction is important if we’re ever to improve on our current trainwreck of an online dating system.
I’ve been thinking about these issues, for reasons noted in that top link, and I can’t help feeling like the single biggest hurdle to getting from Match.com to something that actually works for people is physical attraction. But before this post is swallowed up by misunderstanding, let me begin by articulating some assumptions.
- Attraction matters. No one seeks involvement with someone unless they feel attracted. By definition. That’s what “attraction” means. However…
- …”attractive” has physical and non-physical components.
- Physical attraction is real and not only is it an important factor in who hooks up with whom, research shows, without ambiguity, that it is the factor.
- Physical attractiveness isn’t an easily quantified, objective thing – it’s intensely complex and varies wildly from individual to individual. See below.
- Attractiveness is also a function of non-physical factors. Personality, sense of humor, intelligence, shared values, humanity – all these characteristics and more can increase a person’s attractiveness, sometimes dramatically. The absence of these characteristics, and more, can diminish a person’s attractiveness, sometimes dramatically.
- Attempts to deny these facts are perhaps noble and evolved, but they’re doomed. Attraction is a basic function of being human and there is no shame in admitting it.
Before I continue, let me elaborate on the physical/non-physical issue, because it’s critical to every point I have to make. And let me apologize in advance for employing the numerical rating system. I understand that it’s hardly a satisfactory way to sum up a human being, but it’s a helpful abstraction, in context, and I think we all know what we’re talking about. These are important issues affecting the happiness of millions of wonderful people, and we don’t help things by getting over-sensitive.
Here’s the basic proposition: we’re all attracted to some and not attracted to others. And our criteria vary substantially. Some men like large breasts. Some women are turned off by short men. Some guys are intimidated by tall women. Or intelligent ones. (Since I like tall women and the smarter the better, I feel sorry for those guys.) As the Nancy Etcoff book I cited in my last post makes clear, many women care to the core of their DNA about a man’s financial stability. Some guys like slim women, while others like women with some meat on their bones. Some folks, male and female alike, are attracted to members of the opposite sex who are chubby or even fat to the point of morbid obesity. Some like redheads while others think the gingers are positively hideous. Some women have exacting standards for, ummm… You remember those Enzyte commercials featuring Bob and his really happy wife? Yeah, that. And sadly, a lot of women don’t like bald guys.
But beyond this, we need to acknowledge that these aren’t always on/off switches. In some cases, a particular proclivity is a preference, while in others the presence of a quality (or its absence) might be a deal-breaker. I have preferences. I’m an ass man. I love height (although my ex-wife was medium height). It’s a big plus if she has musical taste that’s compatible with mine and if she likes jam bands or Justin Bieber we’re going to have to set some ground rules. I also have deal-breakers. No smokers, period. If you don’t like dogs we have no future. Small kids? I wish you the best, but I’m not raising another guy’s children. I like women with medium builds, although I have been more than drawn to thin women. More than a few pounds overweight is a deal-breaker. Racist? Unintelligent? Tea Partier? Deal-breakers. Hair color? Couldn’t care less – I’ve been crazy over blondes, brunettes and redheads with short hair, long hair, curly hair, straight hair, you name it. Although no hair would be an issue.
Now, you notice that there were physical and non-physical traits in there, and you see preferences and deal-breakers in both categories. Guess what – you’re like I am, and so is just about everyone else. No matter what we might want to tell ourselves about how we’re above shallow considerations of beauty, there are things that we can’t get past and if you don’t believe me I’ll prove it to you.
I believe it’s also true that we’re more than willing to get past certain physical preference issues, especially when the person before us is beautiful in other ways that matter to us. I know for a fact this is true for me. The great loves of my life have all had things “wrong” with them from the shopping list perspective. Again, I’m betting you’re the same as I am.
With respect to our pursuit of a perfect dating service, we cannot, nor should we try to, avoid the attractiveness question. On the contrary, we should embrace it. The focus has to be on matching people with partners that they find to be incredibly attractive. Which brings us back to terminology I have used before, although I’m not sure everyone was listening. To wit, we have physical attractiveness and we have real attractiveness. Our ideal dating site has to find a way to convey each candidate’s real beauty. It has to maximize the number on that 10-point scale. If a guy is a physical 5, but once you get to know him he’s an 8, then the service has to find a way to present the 8 to potential matches.
This means we must, in some cases, trick the lizard brain, which cares about that physical number, long enough to get our higher brains invested in the rest of the human across the table.
No, I don’t think this is easy. I think it’s quite hard, in fact. But I have some thoughts.
- I think there are things algorithms can do, but I think that they can’t help with about 90% of what ultimately matters.
- I think that the service has to mitigate self-report bias. We’re prone to, ummm, polishing the résumé, as it were, and the result is that when we meet people in person they’re disappointed at first glance. And folks, if your first split-second reaction is “he/she doesn’t look like the description at all,” there’s no way back. First off, your first impression was disappointment. Second, you now know that the person can’t be trusted. A system that puts candidates forward who are not as advertised loses credibility that it can’t get back.
- Which means that the system is going to require curating. There has to be a person who can verify that the profile reflects the truth. Maybe this is minimal, as in a quick meeting to check on the profile. Or maybe it’s more detailed, with each candidate having an account manager who’s at least partially responsible for generating the profile.
- I know, the cost just went up.
- While it has been suggested that people need to get to know each other before they see pictures or meet, this simply isn’t feasible. No way are people who have encountered misrepresentation in profiles going to trust a complete lack of any clue about the other person’s looks. Besides, we want to mimic the best cases of real life, and this isn’t how it works offline. We don’t ask people out if we don’t have some credible idea that we might find them attractive.
When you take these factors along with the assumptions above what we have to conclude is this: a subscriber needs some kind of expectation that he/she is about to meet someone with potential. No more, no less. Just the idea that the date won’t be effectively over in the first two seconds. If you can guarantee me that, five minutes after we meet, I’ll be thinking there’s maybe a chance at something here – and “something” can be as simple as a second date – I’m all in.
In the real world maybe we have seen the person. If not, maybe we have a friend who can vouch. (This can be dangerous. I’ve known guys who, if I trusted them, would set me up with a transvestite ex-con just for the fun of it.) Do you have a best girlfriend who, when she says “you’ll love him,” does so with enough understanding of who you are that you believe her? Do you have a drinking buddy who, when he says “if I weren’t married I’d ask her out,” you can count on it because you know his taste in women?
If a curated/chaperoned kind of service knew enough about you and your preferences (and deal-breakers), it would possible to consistently introduce you to possible partners who, on the issue of attractiveness, were in the ballpark. If it were me, she wouldn’t have to be Olivia Munn (although if she were that would be okay). She wouldn’t need to be universally beautiful. You wouldn’t have to think she was pretty, my friends wouldn’t have to think she was hot, and it wouldn’t matter what she rated, on average, if you polled 500 men between the ages of 35 and 54. It would only matter that she was in the ballpark – my ballpark – had no deal-breakers, and felt the same about me.
I don’t trust an online-only system to accomplish this, although a good algorithm might be able to help the human matchmaker narrow the field and generate some possibilities.
One more caveat, because my last post apparently didn’t make this clear (I hope my sister reads this far so I don’t get another round of advice telling me things I already know – you listening, Marty?). To wit: this is not about me. I’m not bitching about my own situation or soliciting advice on how I can make OK Cupid work for me. I’m exploring the possibility that there’s a better way to help single people find happiness, and if that leads me into a lucrative business start-up, well, that’s just gravy.
I’m interested to hear what you think, and thanks for tagging along on my little windmill-tilting expedition.