What You Don’t Know About Online Dating: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo Credit: non-defining)

(Photo Credit: non-defining)

This week’s episode is called “What You Don’t Know About Online Dating.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode is, for the most part, an economist’s guide to dating online. (Yes, we know: sexy!) You’ll hear tips on building the perfect dating profile, and choosing the right site (a “thick market,” like Match.com, or “thin,” like GlutenfreeSingles.com?). You’ll learn what you should lie about, and what you shouldn’t. Also, you’ll learn just how awful a person can be and, if you’re attractive enough, still reel in the dates.

First you’ll hear Stephen Dubner interview Alli Reed, a comedy writer living in Los Angeles, who conducted an experiment of sorts on OkCupid:

REED: I wanted to see if there was a lower limit to how awful a person could be before men would stop messaging her on an online dating site.

So she created a fake profile for a woman she called “AaronCarterFan” (Aaron Carter, for the uninitiated, is the younger brother of a Backstreet Boy.) Reed loaded her profile with despicable traits (see the whole list below) but used photos of a model friend. In the episode, you’ll hear how this works out. (For more, see Reed’s Cracked.com article “Four Things I Learned from the Worst Online Dating Profile Ever.“)

alli profile

Alli Reed’s fake OkCupid profile

oyerThen you’ll hear from Paul Oyer, a labor economist at Stanford and author of the new book Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating. Oyer hadn’t thought much about online dating until he re-entered the dating scene himself after a long absence and was struck by the parallels between the dating markets and labor markets. If only people approached dating like an economist, he thought, they’d be better off.

One brave soul took the challenge. PJ Vogt, a producer of the public-radio show On The Media and co-host of the podcast TLDR. Vogt opened up his OkCupid profile to let Oyer dissect and, theoretically, improve it. You’ll hear what Vogt had done right, what Oyer thinks was wrong, and what happens when you update your profile, economist-style.

Finally, the economist Justin Wolfers points out one of the most revolutionary benefits of online dating — finding matches in traditionally “thin” markets:

WOLFERS: So I do think it’s a really big deal for young gay and lesbian men and women in otherwise homophobic areas. It’s also a very big deal in the Jewish community. J-Date. All my Jewish friends talk about being under pressure from mum to meet a good Jewish boy or girl, but they don’t happen to be everywhere, but they’re all over J-Date. And I imagine this is true in other ethnic communities. And certainly there are, it’s enormously easy to match on very, very specific sexual preferences.

And since online dating occasionally leads to offline marriage, we’ll look into that topic in next week’s podcast, in the first of a two-parter called “Why Marry?”

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Tear Ceremony, “I Dream of You Endlessly” (from Resin)]

 

Alli REED: I had been personally on OKCupid on and off for a few years…

 

Stephen J. DUBNER: That’s Alli Reed.

 

REED: And I just moved to L.A. in August and you know got back on as a way to meet people, and get to know the city a little bit.

 

DUBNER: Reed is a comedy writer. She spent a lot of time on her OkCupid profile. OKCupid, in case you don’t know, is a dating website. The profile that she wrote wasn’t really working.

 

REED: …got a lot of messages of, hey, you seem nice. Like, just nothing to do with my profile, and so I wondered does anyone care at all. Like are they just looking at a picture. So I wanted to see if there was a lower limit to how awful a person could be before men would stop messaging her on an online dating site.

 

DUBNER: So this is when she got crafty. She wrote a fake OkCupid profile. Very, very fake.

[MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “The Game In F# Minor” (from Antonio’s Giraffe)]

 

DUBNER: So you set up a profile, and your name is what?

 

REED: AaronCarterFan.

 

DUBNER: And are you, in fact, an Aaron Carter fan?

 

REED: No, but I figured the woman I was trying to create probably constitutes Aaron Carter’s basic fan base.

 

DUBNER: Why?

 

REED: Well, Aaron Carter is the younger brother of a Backstreet Boy who had a brief and ill-advised rap career.

 

[AARON CARTER MUSIC]

 

REED: And there is just no substance there in his music at all. And that was what I was trying to reflect in AaronCarterFan.

 

DUBNER: Talk about some of your favorite highlights or lowlights of your profile.

 

REED: Well, one thing I wanted to make clear is that she’s not just a bad person, she wants to ruin your life. So under the section “what I am really good at” the only thing she lists is “convincing people I’m pregnant.”

 

DUBNER: LOL at the end of it.

 

REED: LOL. Oh yeah. She really enjoys it.

 

DUBNER: Right.

 

REED: On a typical Friday night she is knocking the cups out of homeless people’s hands because she thinks it is so funny to watch them try to pick it all up.

 

DUBNER: Talk to me a minute about the 6 things you could never do without. Money, my car, my phone, keeping America American, my family, and my friends, and Aaron Carter. Which I guess is 7 things, but that’s ok. What’s keeping America American meant to signal?

 

REED: She — to me, the worst person in the world is definitely racist. And so I needed that to be a part of her. I didn’t want it to be so obvious. You know, I wanted her to be believably terrible. I didn’t want it to be an obvious joke profile. And keeping America American, to me, is sort of code for I don’t like people who don’t look like me.

 

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “It Takes Two to Tango” (from Somewhere In This Town)]

 

DUBNER: So you created a profile for a girl named AaronCarter’sFan who likes to party and knock over homeless people, or at least their cups, and she’s a racist, gold digging, fake pregnant-getting, 25 year old girl, white girl. How’d you do?

 

REED: AaronCarterFan did very well. In the first 24 hours she got 150 messages. I had the profile up for two or three weeks, and she got close to 1000 men message her. She got probably 10 times the number of messages that my real profile got.

 

DUBNER: So what do you attribute that success to?

 

REED: Well, AaronCarterFan’s one redeeming quality is that she is very good looking. I asked my friend Rae Johnston, who is an Australian-based model and actress, if I could raid her Facebook photos and she very kindly said yes. And so Aaron Carter fan is stunningly good-looking.

 

DUBNER: Uh huh. And so tell me about following up with some of these replies.

 

REED: Well after so many messages started rolling in the optimist in me decided that these men had just seen the pretty photo and had not read her profile. So my goal at that point became to convince them that she is just awful. That she is the worst woman on earth. If they asked what I was doing I said I was pretending to be a 14 year old on Facebook so I could bully my sister’s friends. I would threaten to pull out their teeth. With a lot of guys I could just, I wrote gibberish, just pounded on keyboard for a minute and sent it and the vast majority of them responded with that sounds great, what are you doing on Friday?

 

DUBNER: And how many dates did you have then out of AaronCarterFan fishing?

 

REED: I actually, believe it or not, did not want to meet any of these men in real life.

 

DUBNER: Really?

 

REED: Yeah.

 

DUBNER: I am so surprised, Alli.

 

REED: Actually, I found that a deal breaker for me was messaging AaronCarterFan.

 

[THEME]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “The Cuber Bake” (from Let’s Cool One)]

 

DUBNER: We’re talking today about online dating. Alli Reed wrote a fake OKCupid profile for a really good-looking 25-year-old woman who also happened to be a racist, gold-digging, fake-pregnant-getting nightmare – and she got almost 1,000 replies.

 

Paul OYER: When men are deciding who to contact on dating sites, looks matter a great deal.

 

DUBNER: That’s Paul Oyer. He’s a labor economist at Stanford.

 

OYER: Just to give you one statistic that comes from the OKCupid blog, and I’m quoting here, “A hot woman receives roughly four times the messages an average-looking woman gets and 25 times as many as an ugly one.” And then there’s this interesting superstar effect where the very hottest 5 percent of men get twice as many emails as men who are just below that, who are more like the 10th percentile, amount the 10th percentile most attractive, but not among the very top 5 percent. Women are in general a little bit more attracted to lawyers, doctors, men in the military and firefighters, which I’d always heard was a stereotype, but apparently it turns out to be at least a little bit true.

 

[MUSIC: All Good Funk Alliance, “Timely Convo” (from Social Comment)]

 

DUBNER: Paul Oyer usually writes papers with sexy titles like “Fiscal Year-Ends and Non-Linear Incentive Contracts: The Effect on Business Seasonality,” and “Are There Sectoral Anomalies Too? An Illustration of the Pitfalls of Multiple Hypothesis Testing.” But he recently published a book with a different angle. It’s called Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Economics I Learned From Online Dating. Now, why did Oyer suddenly turn his attention to online dating? Well, he recently re-entered the dating world himself, after a 20-year absence, and when he signed up for some online dating sites, he found that the dating market very much resembled the labor markets he’s used to studying. And, more important, he realized, dating could be much improved if only everybody approached it like an economist would. Now, of course he would say that – he is an economist. But whoever you are, when it comes to online dating, it helps to start with some facts:

 

OYER: So for example, one study found that a man who makes $250,000 per year holding everything else equal gets contacted two and a half times as much as a man who makes more like $50,000 or less and looks the same. Okay?

 

DUBNER: Okay. What else?

 

OYER: Now, more education, it turns out, doesn’t have much of a direct effect. So if you have more education on a dating site, you won’t get more attention on average, however, you will indirectly. The reason for that is if you have more education you’re likely to make more money. A typical study will find that a person with one more year of education holding everything else equal makes 8 to 10 percent more than someone with one fewer year of education. And so that’s going to lead to more money, which would then make you more attractive on a website. The other thing is looks matter a lot, but it turns out that weight doesn’t matter that much independent of looks. So an overweight person who is otherwise medium attractive will do almost as well as a medium attractive person who is not overweight.

 

DUBNER: All right. And what about men’s preferences versus women’s preferences?

 

OYER: Men, on the other hand, care a lot less about income. Women who make more don’t get a lot of extra attention. And by the way, there’s a very interesting recent study by two University of Chicago economists and another economist from another school, and they find that once you get out of this world into real relationships, relationships tend to be less stable and happy if the woman makes more money than the man. So that makes sense that women should be more attracted to money than men to begin with.

 

[MUSIC: Two Dark Birds, “Run For Daylight”]

 

DUBNER: Okay, so Paul Oyer knows a good bit about the rules of attraction in online dating – which, if you think about it, is just dating with a much bigger pool and a much better filter. So here’s the question: does all of Oyer’s knowledge translate into actual wisdom? In other words – is he any good at giving actual online dating advice? For instance: how do you build the best profile ever? Is it better to choose a big site like Match.com or a niche site like GlutenFreeSingles.com (which is real)? Should you lie – and if so, about what? Wouldn’t it be nice if Paul Oyer could not only answer these questions but answer them for a real person wanting to improve his actual online dating situation…

 

PJ VOGT: Hey Paul.

 

OYER: Hi, how are you?

 

VOGT: Good! Nice to meet you.

 

DUBNER: That’s PJ Vogt.  He lives in New York, and he’s a producer at the public-radio show “On The Media,” and he co-hosts a podcast called “TLDR.” And PJ is a brave, brave soul – because he let us open up his OkCupid profile and pick it apart, on the radio:

 

OYER: Have you been told before that you look like Ryan from The Office?

 

VOGT: No! I’ve been told I look like Andy from the office, which I take as a dig…

 

DUBNER: Vogt and Oyer sat down with Suzie Lechtenberg, a producer on our show.

 

Suzie LECHTENBERG: PJ, do you feel like you want to read a few of the –…

 

VOGT: Oh boy… so we’re looking at my OKCupid profile, which I don’t know why this is as embarrassing as it is…but it’s got a few picture of me, which I’ve tried to make, like, pictures that are flattering, but not like too flattering. And then just like, it’s a series of prompts, and basically what I’m realizing now looking at it is in every case I’ve tried to brag and then quickly tell a joke so it doesn’t look like I’m bragging that much.

 

LECHTENBERG: So give us an example.

 

VOGT: Okay, so it says what are you doing with your life? And I say I’m a public radio producer, which means I edit and report stories (brag) and drink too much caffeine (mild self-deprecating joke). Recently I’ve been learning to not jam all my words together in a mush so that old people can hear me better on the radio. See that I’m trying to get away with there?

 

LECHTENBERG: I see.

 

VOGT: Very transparent.

 

LECHTENBERG: Give us another example.

 

VOGT: Okay, so like it says the six things I could never do without. And this is true, but it all ends up sounding up like weird bragging. Coffee, whiskey, running shoes, paperbacks, torrents and my geriatric Vespa. Like you feel like you’re bragging about being a Vespa guy, whatever that, and that’s not a good thing.

 

OYER: Can I just ask the old guy question? What are torrents?

 

VOGT: Oh, torrents are, they’re ways that people download media illegally online usually.

 

LECHTENBERG: I was going to ask the same thing. I was pretending to know, but I had no idea.

 

VOGT: It could be that I was really into torrential rain.

 

LECHTENBERG: Long walks in the rain?

 

VOGT: Long walks in the rain.

 

LECHTENBERG: And what do you spend a lot of your time thinking about?

 

VOGT: One of the prompts is “I Spend A Lot of Time Thinking About.” And I say that I spend a lot of time worrying about people I know seeing me on here, which is ironic because we’re on the radio right now.

 

LECHTENBERG: And are you worried?

 

VOGT: Yeah, I feel like I’m not a person who feels a ton of shame, and I feel just rivers of shame right now.

 

LECHTENBERG: What’s your name on here?

 

VOGT: Oh this is the worst part. It’s Barthes Simpson, but it’s Barthes spelled like Roland Barthes, like the theorist. It’s like the worst, really the worst thing.

 

LECHTENBERG: So spell it, spell the whole name out for us.

 

VOGT: Oh boy, B-A-R-T-H-E-S S-I-M-P-S-O-N. This is so mortifying.

 

[MUSIC: Christopher Norman, “Word of Prey” (from EP3)]

 

DUBNER: Now, as Paul Oyer sees it, the most important first step in online dating is to know exactly what you’re trying to get out of it.

 

OYER: As an economist I can’t help but think we have to start with your objective function. What are we looking for here? Marriage? Someone to hang out with? Option value? So someone to hang out with and if it turns into more that’s good?

 

VOGT: Yeah, option value sounds like a good way to put it.

 

OYER: Okay, so as I look at what you’ve got here, well, before we even look at it we have to stop and think about the first thing an economist is going to do is think about supply and demand. So I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re in a great position. New York City is demographically more female than male. I’m not entirely sure why that’s true. Out here in San Francisco it’s the opposite. We have an oversupply of men relative to women, at least compared to other cities. New York City and Washington D.C. tend to swing much more towards more available women. So you’re in a good position from a competitive point of view. You’re providing a good, single, straight male, which is in relatively high demand. Now the other thing to keep in mind here is time is very much on your side. So you’re in a good position for two other reasons, and that is the male/female differential I just mentioned is going to swing much more in your favor over the next 10 years. So you’re under no pressure to hook up for a long-term relationship right now. So that’s one thing that’s good. The other thing is just more generally, aside from your gender, the fact that you’re 28 years old from an economist point of view means that you should be very picky. So you should be picky, you should be looking for a really good match. And the reason for that is suppose you do find just the right person, and get married and live happily ever after, well you’re in no rush to do that because you have, let’s just say 50 more years in which to enjoy the relationship you find if it’s a successful one. So when I was on the online dating market recently, you know, I’m much older than you are, and from a rational economic perspective, I should be less picky than you. I should be searching a little less carefully. I should be settling, settling is an important idea, it’s a very important idea to economists because of what we call search theory suggests that at some point you should realize that  having what you have is better than expending more resources to try to do better. And that’s more true when you’re my age, I’m 50 now, than when you’re your age, which is 28.

 

VOGT: What’s the year where that… when you…

 

LECHTENBERG: When do you peak?

 

VOGT: What’s my deadline here?

 

OYER: It’s a slow, steady…Your patience level should slowly and steadily erode.

 

VOGT: Okay, that’s happening.

 

OYER: Right now you should be very patient.

 

[MUSIC: Christopher Norman, “Word of Prey” (from EP3)]

 

DUBNER: So Paul Oyer is telling PJ Vogt that PJ is in pretty good shape, dating wise. One thing he’s got going for him is that he’s using a big dating website, OkCupid, in a big city, New York.

 

OYER: I don’t want to advertise for any given website, but especially in your demographic, kind of a younger demographic, OkCupid is what we call a thick market. It’s a very big website, there are lots of men and women on it. So by putting yourself on this website, you’re going to have lots of choice, and a lot of people are going to have the opportunity to see you and consider you as an option. That’s a very good thing.

 

VOGT: Can I ask you a question…Or I can save it if it’s like a derailing question.

 

OYER: No, no, go ahead.

 

VOGT: So my friends and I talk about this all the time. My female friends and my male friends all feel that this is true, like that men in New York and in cities where my friends live, everyone can actually feel these market forces and we talk about them. And I hate them. And I often imagine that I wish that I were from…I always think of the suburb that I’m from where most of the people are not like me like cultural attitudes or whatever. And I think I’d be so much happier being there where I had almost no choice and where I would meet one person where it seemed like, like I could be happy with them. And then I wouldn’t have to…I feel like the hardest part is the feeling of oh there are all these people who seem pretty good. Like if I were shopping for a TV it would fun if everyone were clambering for my dollar, but like…Oh that sounds terrible applied to dating. But like, when it’s like your heart’s involved it feels so bad.

 

LECHTENBERG: It’s– the idea is do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond, right?

 

VOGT: Just like the idea of that the search sucks even if the search is like weighted in your favor I guess.

 

OYER: Okay, so a couple of things can help you out here. One is if the technology is good enough on the dating site, you want a huge dating site that gives you just a very, very small fraction of the available people on the site. So think about this, think about if we tried to put everybody on one dimension, which is of course the kind of oversimplification that economists get made fun of all the time for, and that’s fair. But just think about a boardwalk. And at one end of the boardwalk is people who are completely incompatible for you, with you for one reason. At the other end of the boardwalk is people who are completely incompatible for you for another reason. And you’re right in the middle of this boardwalk.

 

VOGT: Yeah.

 

OYER: And then think of all the women who might be in your potentially in your market as being evenly distributed along this boardwalk, where the ones that happen to be right next to you are perfect fits for you, or very good fits for you. And the ones at the extreme are not. Well, obviously the more women on that boardwalk the better you are. But if you don’t know exactly where they are on the boardwalk…then the more women there are the more problematic it is. So if the technology is good enough to show you here are the 10 women who are really close to what you’re looking for that’s way better than going to a city where the whole boardwalk only has 10 people. And it’s easy to play the whole field of that boardwalk, but the chances that any of those women would be a good fit for you would be not nearly as good. So this is what we call a thick market effect. And it does have the opposite problem that thicker markets lead to more costs of screening all the potential candidates. And if the software can do that for you, you’d be better off.

 

VOGT: I mean, do you feel like the software does a good job of that?

OYER: Um… [NERVOUS LAUGHTER] … So, um…

 

VOGT: That’s how I feel.

 

OYER: [LAUGHS]

 

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Bullfrog Bugaloo” (from Instrumental, Action, Soul)]

 

DUBNER: So whether you’re a straight man in his 20s, like PJ Vogt, or a straight woman, like Alli Reed, who was pretending to be a very different kind of straight woman, or if you’re gay, or if you’re in your 50s, like Paul Oyer — your hopes of meeting the right person are very much dependent upon a series of algorithms. Now, does that make you nervous? If so, we can help. Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: how to build the best online dating profile ever:

 

OYER: As an economist I look at that and I want to suggest the following, that you fill in more detail keeping in mind two ideas that are very important in economics.

 

DUBNER: And, why online dating is a bigger deal than you think:

 

Justin WOLFERS: The Internet has turned matching upside down. It used to be that you would find compatibility first and then learn more about someone else’s attributes. And now you see all the attributes and then you learn about compatibility later.

 

[UNDERWRITING]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: Judson Lee Music, “Cheesy Race”]

 

DUBNER: The dating site OkCupid has a section called “My Details” where you can fill in all kinds of facts about yourself – or, I should say, “facts,” in quotations marks, since you can really write whatever you want. You fill in your ethnicity, body type, diet, religion, income, astrological sign, the pets you love, or hate. The economist Paul Oyer, the author of Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned From Online Dating, told PJ Vogt and Suzie Lechtenberg that there’s a science  to filling in these details – and that sometimes, just sometimes, you might want to lie.

 

OYER: As I discuss in the book, people lie all the time online, and I never would advocate lying, but these were two where I thought if I want to indicate you wanted to, and I’m not saying you should, that you were serious and ready for a relationship longer term you might want to either not answer them or shade, exaggerate a little bit, whatever term you want to use.

 

VOGT: Oh man. I’m so worried about what this is going to be.

 

OYER: No, no, it’s not a big deal, but you said you space out “all the time.”

 

VOGT: Oh yeah, that’s true.

 

OYER: Okay, so you might not want to reveal that. If you’re looking for someone who’s thinking about who’s going to be the father of their children.

 

VOGT: Oh yeah, that’s a good point. That’s a really good point.

 

LECHTENBERG: Is that what you’re looking for, though?

 

VOGT: I mean, kind of, honestly. Here’s the thing, I would want to date someone even if it were casual where they weren’t like I would never want to make a human with this person.

 

LECHTENBERG: Oh. Yeah.

 

OYER: The other thing is you were “attracted to dangerous situations.”

 

VOGT: Yeah.

 

OYER: That may be true, but you don’t, I’m not suggesting you go back and give a false answer, I’m just saying you don’t have to answer. There were a few answers where when I filled out the OKCupid questions there were a few I just didn’t fill out. And I’ll be honest, there were a few where I checked a box that I don’t think it was entirely truthful what I checked.

 

LECHTENBERG: Such as?

 

OYER: In some of the questions it asks you how into deep conversations with your mate, and cuddling, and things like that you are. I may have made myself seem a bit more accessible in those dimensions than an honest person would say.

 

[MUSIC: Cale Pellick, “Sunday Stroll”]

 

DUBNER: So Paul Oyer admits he fibbed a little bit. But that’s because some of the signals in a dating profile can come across really strong. And if they send the wrong message, it might be better to tone them down a little bit. So… what kind of signals was PJ Vogt sending out?

 

LECHTENBERG: Do you want to read what you have under “My Details?”

 

VOGT: “My Details.”

 

LECHTENBERG: Yeah, do you have that in front of you?

 

VOGT: “My Details.” Height is 5’10’’.

 

OYER: Your, your body type is “jacked.”

 

VOGT: “Jacked.” I think that’s supposed to scan as a joke. I said I don’t smoke. I said I drink socially, which is stretching it a little bit. I probably drink more than socially. And it says that I speak English okay.

 

LECHTENBERG: I look at this and I think this guy is just looking for a good time, like he’s not taking it seriously. Because everything’s a joke.

 

OYER: Yeah, there you go, exactly.

 

VOGT: Huh.

 

OYER: As an economist I look at that and I want to suggest the following, that you fill in more detail keeping in mind two ideas that are very important in economics. And they’re related. They are statistical discrimination and adverse selection. So when people look at things in your site they’re going to make assumptions about you based on them, statistical assumptions.

 

VOGT: Okay.

 

OYER: A simple example looking at your thing is you have many, sort of, jokes/statements about whiskey and other alcohol consumption and maybe it’s fine if you’re just looking for the hangout market, but in the is-this-guy-marriage-material market, the drinking and then the fact that all your pictures are in extremely casual attire.

 

VOGT: Wait, so you think that I should have dressed up pictures?

 

OYER: No, no, I think if you want to show that you’re serious and you’re ready to settle down, you should consider having one or two pictures that show that. Now, the other thing to keep in mind here is there are certain things women want, especially when it comes to settling down, when they’re starting to look for spouse material, there are certain things women definitely want in a man. And you can’t fake some of these and that’s okay. So one of them is they, they like rich men.

 

VOGT: Yeah.

 

OYER: And you know, I don’t know your family background, but you’re, the public radio thing is probably not what they’re looking for as far as rich goes. But that’s okay, so you just have to accept that.

 

VOGT: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, the alcohol thing gives me pause, but I think for the most part, I think I know, and it’s actually one of the things I hate about dating is I think I know what I’m selling. I think I have a firm idea of the kind of person who is probably going to like me. I know what, on a superficial level what details they’re going to like about me.

 

OYER: You have to keep in mind the distinction between someone who’s going to like you once they get to know you, which is the most important thing you’re looking for, and somebody who’s going to be initially attracted to your profile. Can I throw a little economics jargon at you guys?

 

VOGT: Oh, please!

 

LECHTENBERG: Please do.

 

OYER: What you want to remember in your profile is that you want to be very upfront and forthcoming in anything that is what an economist would call a coordination game. It’s where our interests are aligned and as long as we have the right information we’re going to make the right decision. So in my case I was very upfront and forthcoming in my profile about the fact that I had a large and badly behaved golden retriever, and the fact that I have two teenaged children. Because if somebody was against those things, then those were deal breakers. And in your case, you want to be honest about the fact that you’re a public radio producer because on the one hand that’s very attractive to some people, but it also indicates that you’re not going to be rich, at least in the short term. You don’t want anybody who wants you just for your money, either because you don’t like those types of people or because even if you do you’re not going to get them once they have the information anyway. But the beauty of that is you still have plenty of time to learn that, so you have time to experiment, make some mistakes, and then you have A) time for the reasons we talk about and B) you have this very thick market of available women where you live, so if you make some mistakes early on, sure your heart will get broken, you’ll be crushed for a while, but then you can recover and learn from your mistakes and it will all work out happily.

 

[MUSIC: Kero One, “This Life Aint Mine” (from Early Believers)]

 

DUBNER:So in case you’re wondering, as I was wondering, whether all of Paul Oyer’s dating advice is worth listening to… One thing you’d want to know is: did it help him get the girl? Well, it did. He found his significant other on J-Date. So naturally we wanted to know if Oyer’s advice worked for PJ Vogt, too. A few weeks after they talked, I asked PJ how he changed his OkCupid profile:

 

VOGT: So generally the sense that I got from talking to him was that I came off as a flippant alcoholic. So, I was trying to diminish that. So I cut… I think, one reference to drinking.

 

DUBNER: Which one?

 

VOGT: Uh, I think… no I didn’t… I left in both references.

 

DUBNER: (laughs)

 

VOGT: What I did…I answered….he said I should fill out more of the basic questions about me.

 

DUBNER: Did you change photos?

 

VOGT: Yes. He told me to put in a picture of myself more presentable so I took a picture of myself from a wedding…

 

DUBNER: Can I see?

 

VOGT: Yeah.

 

DUBNER: Oh yeah. That’s really good. Also what’s really cool about this picture is it is you in a suit, looking great, surrounded by four women.

 

VOGT: Right, so there is sort of like an implicit: they’ll stand next to me!

 

DUBNER: What’s wrong with you? And… what was your… it was a solo shot before… a little slacker-y…

 

VOGT: Yeah, I also, I put a picture with my dog. Which felt like to the spirit of his advice. And a bunch of old ladies. How’s that —

 

DUBNER: Ok, so here we… Oh my god. You are canny! So this is actually a perfect mirror in a way of the other picture of you at the wedding with four young good looking girls. Now here you are on a park bench in what looks like Brooklyn, holding a dog, not just in your lap, but in your arms, like you have so much love to give but I have to give it to the dog because you are not here. And there are four older women on the bench surrounding you looking as though, oh, if only I were forty years younger this would be the man of my dreams, or if he were forty years older.

 

VOGT: Yeah! Exactly!

 

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Trepidation” (from Rotisserie Twist)]

 

DUBNER: PJ also tweaked his profile a bit, as Paul Oyer suggested. He tried to highlight some of his best attributes….

 

VOGT: Public radio… relatively fun. Not depressed… Not…

 

DUBNER: You have good teeth.

 

VOGT: Thank you. I should put that in there.

 

DUBNER: Yeah. Well, no, no. That’s where you let the picture do the talking.

 

VOGT: Right. But the weird thing is you will be like –

 

DUBNER: I mean…look… it is hard for me to say, but I would think if I were a woman and any guy who talked about….like, if he is listing his teeth as an attribute. A) it feels vain. And B) If that’s what you are listing as an attribute I’m afraid the list isn’t going to be very long…But I’m just saying as an aside…you do have good… you know…

 

VOGT: Yeah, it would be like an apartment being like, we have a sink, we have a working sink. You should have a sink.

 

DUBNER: So how did it work out for PJ? He did get a bunch more replies but he thinks that’s because a new photo on your profile can trigger more traffic. So no, there’s no good news to report… yet.

 

DUBNER: Now, it’s easy to get lost in the details of online dating and fail to appreciate what it represents — which is a new and, theoretically, improved way for one person to take a look around at the 7 billion other people on the planet and try to pick the right one. Now, it comes with its own problems, that’s for sure. But the strengths of online dating are very real. Especially if you aren’t a single straight man living in a big, big city – a “thick market” — a  with an overabundance of single straight women:

 

WOLFERS: For certain thin dating markets I think it’s revolutionized things.

 

DUBNER: Justin Wolfers is an economist at the University of Michigan.

 

WOLFERS: So I do think it’s a really big deal for young gay and lesbian men and women in otherwise homophobic areas. It’s also a very big deal in the Jewish community. J-Date. All my Jewish friends talk about being under pressure from mum to meet a good Jewish boy or girl, but they don’t happen to be everywhere, but they’re all over J-Date. And I imagine this is true in other ethnic communities. And certainly there are, it’s enormously easy to match on very, very specific sexual preferences.

 

DUBNER: So whoever you are, and whoever you’re looking for, Wolfers says, the Internet has turned dating upside down.

 

WOLFERS: It used to be that you would find compatibility first and then learn more about someone else’s attributes. And now you see all the attributes and then you learn about compatibility later. For an economist it’s very seductive to believe that more information makes these things work better. And I guess, you know, I haven’t seen careful studies of this yet as to whether these high information marriages are working out to be more stable.  

 

[MUSIC: Two Dark Birds, “Pie Eyed” (from Songs For The New)]

 

DUBNER: Well this leads us very nicely to next week’s episode. It’s called “Why Marry?” and you’ll hear Justin Wolfers and many others talk about all the myths of modern marriage — and whether any of them are actually true. So that’s next week. Today we’ll leave you with an e-mail from a listener named Katie Hoelzer. She writes: “Hey Dubner and Levitt! My name is Katie, and I’m a 14-year old listener from Rochester, Minnesota. One day, I’d love to start my own podcast, so I have some questions for you. What are your job responsibilities? What do you think is the best contribution your job makes to society? Also, my birthday is this Thursday and I would love it if you would shout me out on the show! Thanks!!” Okay, Katie. Job responsibilities on the podcast? Basically, Levitt does the numbers, I do the words. Best contribution we make to society? Are you kidding? Have you ever listened to this podcast? We definitely don’t contribute anything to society. And about your birthday? Happy birthday, Katie Hoezler. And thank you for listening.


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  1. Steve says:

    In his book “The Upside of Irrationality” Dan Ariely makes a lot of interesting observations about online dating and some of the unseen pitfalls that it causes. I think the most facinating finding was how people of varying physical appearance (or attractiveness) view each other – and he does this using the old site hotornot.com (funny in its own right).

    Having been on a few online dates myself these studies always make for good conversation with the people you are on a date with!

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  2. Voice of Reason says:

    Why would anybody use a fake picture? The goal isn’t to get messages or dates, it’s to ultimately hook up, start a relationship, or get married. Why waste your time meeting somebody that you know will work away the disgusted the second they meet you?

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    • plusECON says:

      Well, let’s say a person who put up a fake picture wants to just hook up. They get a bigger pool of candidates and decide to meet up. The candidate, a little annoyed when they realize the picture was fake when they actually meet, is likely to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. Since the date has already started, they don’t back out and maybe something happens.

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    • joe J says:

      For some the goal is to get messages either as a effective pen pal or an ego boost. Just like some go to clubs to get hit on, it’s an ego boost.

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  3. thomas wilson says:

    Would it be wise to embellish your income on a dating website to find a woman who loves you for who you are and not your bank account? For example, if I am a successful businessman and make 100k+ per year, put my income as 40-50k per year?

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    • Voice of Reason says:

      But the problem with that is you’d be forfeiting one of your greatest assets. Remember, salary might not be a big factor for guys, but it seems to be pretty important for women. It would be like putting a job posting up, and intentionally understating the salary. In a sense, you’d be getting a lower quality women because you’d be artificially reducing your selection pool.

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      • James says:

        On the contrary, the average quality of responses would increase (even though you’d get fewer total), as you would have eliminated many of those only interested in money.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        I don’t think the overall quality would improve. Women tend to be a bit realistic about what they can “catch”, and you’d be passing on women who believe that they can do better than a guy who earns less than median, but getting a higher percentage of women who know that they can’t and rate themselves sufficiently low that they’ll take that. You wouldn’t lose women who are “only interested in money”; you’d lose women who want to be able to stay home with the kids for a couple of years, or who want your kids to go to college, or who make more than $100,000 themselves.

        It’s one thing to round down a bit—to say 100,000 when you actually earned 115,000, or to say 100,000 because that’s your base salary without bonus pay or profit-sharing. The difference between saying that you’re at the 93rd percentile and the 90th percentile isn’t that dramatic. It’s another thing to halve your income so that you look less successful than average. Going from 93rd percentile to 45th percentile is a bad idea.

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      • Voice of Reason says:

        You’d have to do a study with statistics to prove this either way, but my hunch would be that the quality of women would diminish if you undersold your salary (because you would be taking potential applicants out of the pool), but you would not achieve significant improvements in your potential might if you exaggerated your salary to get her in the door and spend extravagantly on her early on (you would attract gold diggers, and the quality women with money would be able to see through your charade).

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      • James says:

        @Enter your name: ” You wouldn’t lose women who are “only interested in money”; you’d lose women who want to be able to stay home with the kids for a couple of years, or who want your kids to go to college, or who make more than $100,000 themselves.”

        OK, that was a bit of over-simplification from my personal POV. But the principle holds. It’s a dating site, right? Not a marriage market. Since I’m NOT looking for someone whose primary interest is in having kids and being a SAHM at my expense, from my perspective the quality improves.

        Of course you may be looking for something different, in which case you’d couch your ad in different terms. As e.g. “Good provider wants wife for ’50s-style nuclear family…”

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    • anonymous says:

      Like an old fashioned movie from the 30′s? Where someone like Clark Gable who’s a millionaire poses as an unemployed bum so he can rub elbows with the little people who work for him, and he meets an ambitious secretary like Joan Crawford? She scorns his company because he IS an unemployed bum as far as she knows, but his charm wears her down and he hounds and pursues her until she catches him? And then, surprise!!! He is a wealthy, eccentric millionaire, he reveals just after the wedding, hurrah!…..I don’t know what I would do in a case like that, it seems very dishonest. I’m trying to think of a female equivalent involving looks and loyalty instead of money and gold-digging….Do you have to list your annual income on these sites? Do women screen possibilities by how high a man’s income is? How crass if they do! I would hate to have to use a dating site if I were young. I would never use one now, late in life.

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    • Alice says:

      I mean, I wouldn’t. I just don’t think it’s that easy to separate superficial biases from human behavior, especially as a first impression.

      The goal is to attract that subset of women who would be equally interested in you with your salary at $100k+ as at $40-50k, right? But unless you’re somehow able to keep both profiles active without it being obvious that you’re the same person, there’s no way of knowing who falls into that group. By listing your income at $40-50k, you’re not just signaling to people who are less “price sensitive”. You may also be attracting people who, for whatever reason, prefer someone with a lower income level. Maybe non-materialism is a political ideology to them, so your lower income makes you *more* attractive to them than your $100k+ & you bourgeois sensibilities. Maybe their own income bracket is so low that $40-50k is a catch to them (essentially, someone who is equally “superficial”, just targeting at a lower level).

      So, you’re not effectively winnowing out people who are superficially interested in you. You ARE winnowing out people for whom your wealth might be one of a number of factors they consider when they have, say, 20 messages over the course of a week from nice-seeming, viable guys, & only dating capacity for three of them. If it bothers you that this is a contributing factor, then it might be worth a try.

      But in my humble opinion, you’re then putting a LOT of faith into your profile’s ability to accurately depict the essence of Who You Are & that your calling card will catch the right people at the right time. I’ve been on dating sites for years (met my current boyfriend on one, in fact) & that’s not how it worked in my experience.

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    • Joe says:

      It could be your potential partner isn’t evaluating whether you’re a sugar daddy, but whether or not you are successful in your pursuits.

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  4. plusECON says:

    Great podcast! I know a lot of dating sites are using Neo4j graph databases to advance their matching technology (ie

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    • plusECON says:

      sorry, hit return accidentally, but I wonder how much the actual technology of the dating platform plays into the success of the matches?

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  5. Ali says:

    What if the profile didn’t say that she was interested in casual sex? I think that it is a significant variable.

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  6. ESO says:

    I tried online dating about ten years ago, and got quickly discouraged by most of the dating sites I tried. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular; just some fun hang-outs with new people, with the possibility of more. I was an attractive white woman in my early 20′s; meaning, statistically likely to get lots of messages. But the profiles of other users seemed to tell me absolutely nothing about whether they were people I’d enjoy having coffee with even once; they were all a litany of the same TV shows and the same music and some generic-sounding job title or college major, a photo, and dubious statistics for height, weight, and *ahem*. After looking at men’s profiles, I’d get so put off that I never bothered to finish setting up my own profile and just gave it up.
    I figured that if all they saw was my photo, I’d get a whole lot of messages from people I didn’t want to have to interact with (I wouldn’t like them, and they wouldn’t like me either) and have no way of efficiently sorting out the interesting ones. So I tried Craigslist, where there was no format at all and mostly no photos, so I figured that whatever someone decided to write was what they thought was important, and at least if they had more to say than a list of what TV shows they watched they’d say it.
    I’m sure all the dating sites are more sophisticated now than they were ten years ago, so maybe the argument is less valid than it might have been at the time. I’m afraid I don’t have much of a sample size by which to evaluate the success of my approach because I only ever went on one date that way. We have been together ever since.

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  7. Fluffy says:

    I am surprised that you didn’t mention the Secretary problem. The math that tells one the best solution to how many people to date before getting married. Date the first n/e, and dump them with out even considering them, then marry the first one who is better than all the other ones. Where n is the population of people whom one might marry.

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    • mk says:

      1. You don’t know the number of applicants, so the secretary problem becomes messy and may not be optimal.

      2. Judging the quality of applicant is difficult; it’s mostly emotional and irrational. Overall, it’s more like binary (pass/fail), not a gradient. Given that, after N arbitrary dates, I doubt anyone would consider marrying the first person they get along with.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Your solution assumes that “the first one” will marry you.

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  8. Marian Kechlibar says:

    Well, I would say that Alli Reed has discovered something that is well-known since Renaissance… people have various “ladders” with regard to the other sex.

    In her case, the artifical identity was quite high on the “hot to f— once” ladder, even though it was carefully crafted to score below zero on the “long-term relationship material” ladder.

    I had to laugh sadly at the “men have been so deeply socialized to value women solely on their appearance” meme at the end of the article. This is a classical blank-slater prejudice. The author seems to be intelligent enough to take such assertion with a huge grain of salt. Maybe she was just never exposed to other viewpoints.

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