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 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.

  1. Attraction matters. No one seeks involvement with someone unless they feel attracted. By definition. That’s what “attraction” means. However…
  2. …”attractive” has physical and non-physical components.
  3. 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.
  4. Physical attractiveness isn’t an easily quantified, objective thing – it’s intensely complex and varies wildly from individual to individual. See below.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Following me?

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.


  • Comment Disclaimer #1: I was impressed by — and therefore followed — this blog when one of you was Freshly Pressed recently. I like the format of indepth analysis. I’m a Virgo. We analyze everything to death.

    Comment Disclaimer #2: I’m not looking for love, and if I were, it wouldn’t be online for . . . a number of reasons where physical attractiveness would rank several notches below other issues.

    Comment Disclaimer #3: I haven’t read this entire post, which isn’t fair to you.

    Comment Disclaimer #4: I did read the earlier post and I’m sorry I missed the controversy that followed. I can imagine it, though . . .

    “Having said that” . . . .

    Some things just can’t be analyzed. I was (emphasis on ‘was’) married to a rocket scientist who rated everything . . . EVERYTHING numerically. Sometimes it was funny. Other times, not so much. For example, I was a 7.5. I would have been an 8, except I’d had children (his) and so there had been some depreciation in value. Also, I didn’t — at the time — have a graduate degree, which somehow reflected poorly on his status.

    So when I read your first piece, I wanted to say that maybe quality women in your online dating world were turned off not by your appearance but by being rated. Maybe they, too, had been appraised by a (expletive deleted) rocket scientist and didn’t care to spend an evening wondering where they fell on your scale.

    For Pete’s sake, go to a bookstore, strike up a conversation, and ask a girl for coffee…and turn off the attractiveness meter and subsequent attempts to rationalize it.

    Or stay home and watch Miss Universe. Because those women are used to being rated.

    • I think I explain the rating thing here for what it is – an abstraction that helps us talk about concepts. There isn’t a woman alive who can say that she has ever heard me rate her 1-10. Ever. That your ex did it is unfortunate.

      Also, when you get a few minutes read the whole post. As I say at the bottom, this is not about me. The last one wasn’t, either.

  • I love your postings… Sam… Keep up the hard work.. I’m reading. 🙂
    My Best, Vicky

  • In reality, all that matters is attraction. Or, as I prefer, passion. We all have our rules, and we have all met someone -maybe more than once- that we could get pretty dang passionate about even if they don’t fit our ‘rules’. I know girls right now that get me fired up, but if I read their profile online, the essense of “who they are” would not come across. I also know some that if I saw their profile, and we clicked online, we probably would not in real life.

    I see this for two reasons. One, we don’t always represent whom we are as accurately as we should online. Even if it isn’t a conscience decision, we ARE biased about ourselves.
    Secondly, that pizzaz that a girl has that lights up a room, when you can’t get enough of her voice, smell, smile – how the heck does THAT get conveyed via an online profile.

    And as I refer to the ‘her’, it is also us guys. All that being said, we judge people more harsh online than in real life, at least in my opinion. And to be honest, if I am being boiled down as to a valid match based on how I look on paper, I don’t want to be part of that.

    For me, it all comes back to passion.

    • JC, there’s another word that comes into play in these conversations: “sexy.” I think there’s a tendency to correlate sexy with pretty. And there’s probably a correlation of some sort, not that you could quantify it. But in my experience, the link between the two is far weaker than I think some people believe.

      I had this girlfriend once. She was physically attractive by any measure. She had been a top ballerina for one of the top three companies in the world. She was intelligent, creative, even rich. Were I to call her beautiful and elegant, I’d be engaging in understatement. And she was crazy about me.

      Sexy? Not in the least. Now, these things are certainly subjective – many men would probably have found her to be so, but this was the first time in my life I had looked at a gorgeous woman and simply not been interested. It was one of the weirdest experiences of my life and one that taught me a great deal about relationships.

      On the other hand, when I was in college there was this girl I dated briefly on two separate occasions. (Well, okay – “dated” is probably not the right word here. But for the sake of argument, play along.) If you did the cynical fraternity guy thing and had a bunch of college guys rate her one to ten, no way she’d have averaged a six. Probably a lot of fives and sixes, but almost certainly nothing above that. She wasn’t unattractive by a long shot, but if all I had was a profile I’d have moved on quickly. She just wasn’t that appealing at a glance.

      But my early experience with her wasn’t at a glance. She was a friend of a friend, and I had occasion to be around her a little. And every time I was my blood boiled. Sweet jebus, she was the hottest female I had ever met. It’s been 30 years since I saw her. I don’t know where she is, what she’s doing or what she looks like these days, but if she walked in the room right now my temperature would rise, guaranteed.

      All of which I guess is to say that attraction is embodied. Ever since the innertubes got cranked up I’ve had people telling me you could get to know the REAL person online and fall in love without even meeting him/her in person, etc. I can’t speak to your experiences, but I have never found this to be true. In fact, I wish I had a dollar for every time the impression I derived from dealing with a person online turned out to be wrong.

      My hypothetical better dating service is going to have to find a way of predicting, to some degree, what will make people click. And it’s going to have to absolutely find a way to get people together for more than a five-minute speed date. If there’s a click, it may take a few minutes. Or days. Or longer. So let’s meet for coffee and I have to be back at work in a half hour, that’s not going to cut it.

  • You both made me smile with these postings.. 🙂 I’m waking up every morning with my coffee to see what I can learn! You would think since I’m older than both of you I would know more but not the case.. Sam… I would LOVE a better from of dating on line.. Bring on your great new business! I agree with a lot of what you say.. I’m experiencing it even now.. I have a guy who contacted me on Match who lives nine hours from me. He has family in my town.. I’m not sure we will meet or not. I don’t think he can figure out how to keep face with me… He was looking for ..? ( I wish someone would teach me the difference between the word “dating” & what does one say.. for the other? “Hook Up?” I need to have a PHD in this new world of whatever everyone calls “It” : ) My friend in Utah says Hmmm… He is probably just looking for a place to park his “thing” while visiting family.. ( My friend apologized for being so crass but he is probably right on..) I’m pretty sure this guy also lied about his age.. I googled him. He recently lost his wife & I understand his emotional turmoil but I’d like to teach him the right way to go about this.. & maybe he just doesn’t care… Lying is what guys always complain about women doing on Match. Everyone says that is just a way to get your foot in the door!! I really hope he wants to meet and say hello because right now I’m wanting to confront him with it on paper. I have been dead honest with my profile & pictures & look where I’m still at.. People still don’t understand the real me.. What ever happened to treating others as you would want them to treat you?
    I can’t seem to find the right way to get to know a great guy when distance is involved.. THAT is where someone in the dating business needs to figure out how we can find the click.. My small town does not make it conducive for me to find someone in a coffee shop & remember since I’m a caregiver in my home that situation makes it even harder to find the right relationship if it even exists.. I might be looking for “parking privileges too but I need someone to teach me how to go about finding them with an inexpensive cost to my heart since I can’t afford heart transplants..:) How many pieces of candy do you think I will have to taste before I find the one I like? At this age (62 & widowed) people seem to only interested in what they say are ” casual relationships”. What exactly does that mean? I need a new dictionary!! My girlfriends are telling me just to forget it at my age. What do you think?? I’m counting on you to bring on this great new dating site.. By the way.. you do know that when people can’t find what they are looking on Match they just run to another site like OK Cupid.What a profitable business venture!! You will see the same people with different profiles.. Someone needs to really be innovative & they will probably have a goldmine of a business if they figure it out!
    My best to you today, Vicky

  • Vicky, I left Okcupid after one week of trying it because you can’t block someone from viewing your profiles on that site. You can only block them from emailing you, and I do not like that (complex sentence? correctly punctuated? Sam is that correct?). I’m taking a business english class. I think I did like their matching system and questions. Although, some of the answer really creeped me out. Their were some 55 yr. old guys saying that they preferred virgins (not on their profile but in the question and answer section). You can join Okcupid for free but they will charge extra if you want some of their services. I have seen many guys on multiple dating sites at the same time.

    A casual relationship is probably more of a friends with benefits type of relationship. I believe that means that you have sex but are not in a committed relationship. You and they may be able to continue to look for something more serious (with someone else) while you are having this relationship. You can date other people if that is ok with them. You can ask that they not have sex with anyone else while they are with you.

  • Hi Mystie, Thanks for the imput.. I never seem to get enough..:) Keep teaching me! I’m sure I need to take a business English class! I too tried OK Cupid after a friend had suggested it to me saying it was better than Match. You could block someone from seeing your profile if you were a paid member. And, oh yes the questions.. Some I absolutely refused to answer. I kind of liked the concept of questions to get to know someone more if they were answered truthfully.. One, I particularly remember was “If you divide your age by two, have you slept with that many people?” Most guys answered yes to that..Now… back to my sixty two age.. I couldn’t believe it!! 🙂 I think it just made me more nervous about the entire dating scene. I had more of a “Not so much from my heart profile on there at the time.” ( Unlike my one on Match now..) But I still had many creepy guys hitting on me. I complained to OK Cupid about the Matches they were picking for me & the response was.. “Do you know how many creepy guys we have to deal with on a daily basis here? That was not what I wanted to hear so I left & went back to Match..
    A guy Match found for me this week had the most profound profile I’ve ever read.. I will remember it always.. He started out with “OMG. I just found out that God has sent down some angels to determine who is deserving of heaven. Heaven is getting overcrowded & it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get in-much like the Olive Garden a Saturday night or Walmart on Black Friday. So holy crap, it turns out that anyone on this site that is lying about their age or weight, or who has posted photographs that don’t really look like them, will be doomed to hell. So far 98% of everyone over the age of forty five is screwed.”
    You can see how he immediately caught my attention & made me so laugh.. He went on with even better dialogue & at the end.. he says .. ” Now, to be really honest, I have left my profile on line to hopefully give anyone reading it a good laugh. Unfortunately I had a health issue recently that affected my spinal cord & resulted in me losing the use of my legs, I am now confined to a wheelchair. So my advice to the world is be thankful for your life & everything you physically can do. Life is fragile.”
    So.. my lesson of the year.. Mystie..
    My Best, Vicky

  • Sam, here’s an interesting blog post I just read today about beauty. It’s about the Dove ad with the forensic artist. Feel free not to approve this comment.

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