What You Don’t Know About Online Dating (Ep. 154)

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(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?”


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!

Voice of Reason

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?


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.

thomas wilson

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?

Voice of Reason

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.


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.


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


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


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


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.



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.


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.

Marian Kechlibar

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.


The economics I figured was using an expensive site: it selects for women who are serious about a relationship and filters away all the marginal talent.

Miss Georgia and I: April 6


My wife and I used to play a little game we called "couple of the week" from the Saturday engagement photos in the newspaper. The rules were very loose. We'd each pick our favorite couple. My picks were based on looks alone...whereas she'd read their full write-up to assess, mostly, the male's lifetime earning potential, i.e. "He's a med school grad."

Whether in the old school or online era, I think dating is a little like art: The harder you try, the harder it is to produce results "on demand." I think many people find their match when they have their guard down and aren't even trying. Therein lies one dynamic of online matching that is rather unusual: two people who are both being very process-oriented, deliberate and intentional, at the same time. It sounds like that would be a good thing, but I am not 100% certain. It does sound better than the old ways!

I wonder if it helps to have a mindset that there may be many suitable life-matches out there, none of them perfect but many of them good; and that a perfect match is not needed, just a good one. Find an OK match and say, "I'll put up with your crap if you'll put up with mine." With Valentine's Day approaching, I think that's a lovely thought.



The fake profile is clearly FAKE and a joke. I'd reply just for fun. It isn't a believable profile.


You don't play bad when you want to be bad. Actors know this, economists don't.