What Social Science Can Teach You About Dating


Never underestimate the importance of your internet dating profile picture.

For many years, friends have asked me for dating advice. At first, I wasn’t sure why. But eventually I realised: I had spent too many years studying the social sciences, and they wanted my evidence base.

Social science can teach us many important things — from tackling poverty to helping people to make better life choices. It also offers a lot of insights about dating. Here are four of the most useful.

1.  Grow your sample size

In the 90s, a group of men calling themselves ‘pick-up artists’ formed an international ‘seduction community’. The goal: to maximise their dating success with women. They coached each other in a series of seduction techniques — many of which were slammed as misogynistic, but continue to be promoted and taught today. Some techniques were straightforward, for instance improving the men’s self-esteem, social skills and appearance. Others were more complex, such mastering the backhanded compliment in order to gain the attention of a popular woman. Many pick-up artists reported significant numbers of conquests. Yet I suspect a large part of their ‘success’ was due to increased sample size. The pick-up artists encouraged each other to bust a move on lots of women, and not to take it personally when they said no. This increased their chances of eventually getting a yes.

2.  Recognise that humans are superficial

Dating sites can tell us a lot about our dating preferences — and it’s not always flattering. The OkTrends blog crunches the numbers from the OkCupid dating website, with some interesting results. When assessing another person’s ‘looks’ and ‘personality’ based on their profile, most people focus almost entirely on the photo, rather than the text. OkTrends therefore provides instructions on how not to be ugly by accident. In short, use a good camera, don’t use flash, emphasize the foreground, and take photos in the afternoon or at night.

3.  Know when to stop looking

Economist and politician Andrew Leigh found that people who marry in their teens are a lot more likely to split up than those who wait until at least their twenties. He attributes this to the optimal-stopping problem. Basically, nobody is a perfect match for you, but some people are definitely better than others. You need to get to know people before you know if they are right for you. Time is scarce, so it’s better to make a decision with limited information than no decision at all. In short, you need to choose a time to stop looking in order to get the best outcome, factoring in the need to allow time to gather enough information. (Leigh does acknowledge that this is not the most romantic of theories, and suggests not busting it out on the first date.)

4.  Get some perspective

Research suggests that people who are married or in stable relationships have better wellbeing than others. But relationship status isn’t the only aspect of wellbeing. So if a relationship isn’t happening for you right now, it might be smart to switch your focus to other aspects of wellbeing: exercise, eat well, spend time with friends and family, and make a positive contribution through work or volunteering.

Penny Jones   

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