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?”


I really liked this podcast but I wished there could be some contrast to the experience of a woman on OkCupid. Women in NYC don't have as much choice. And according to OkCupid's blog in 2010, black women have the least amount of choice. In my experience, both of this facts are true. I was messaged, but like Alli Reed mentioned it is quite obvious that almost none of the men looked at my profile just the photo.
OkCupid has pretty good matching system, but how many people actually use it for dates? I would matches that were 90-98% but rarely received messages or replies from these guys. I did receive messages from guys who were a 50%-20% match. Many of those guys preferences including dating black women and messaged me based on race and looks. They didn't even take into consideration my friends in the photos or the activities I was doing. How would an economist solve that problem? How would he take in consideration that men only seem to look at photos and not profiles?



You seem to be implying that Men are worse than Women about this, and I'm not sure I agree. I've looked at some of the statistics about online dating and found that guys with good chests, partially exposed, ranked far higher than most others' response. I suppose that most of the guys with great chests could also be highly intelligent and insightful, but it'd take some convincing.
I'm afraid that, in my experience, casting through the chaff goes for both sides. Women may actually have it tougher as there are so many Men trying to make contact. I've heard from Women friends that they get bombarded by emails, and that it's overwhelming.
I've heard the trope that some Men only want black Women or Asian Women, but you don't hear the same things about blonde or redheads. I've had the honor of going out with both black and Asian Women and was drawn to them because I find them beautiful. That doesn't preclude me from looking deeper and being interested in who they are. Something has to draw you near enough to make contact.
In any given group you'll find the douche-bags that are in it for the basest needs. I'd like to think they're pretty easy to cull out, don't you? If you were to get an email from someone with a little intelligence and a passing command of English, that would be a likely candidate?


Anthony Thomas (@djfourmoney)

There is quite a bit that's alarming and they didn't even get into the other juicy topics of American dating other than what's popular right now and that's to talk about LGBT concerns.

I will give some troubling data -

In Brazil 26% of Black Men are married to non-Black women.

In the UK 22% of Black Men are married to non-Black women

In the US its 8% (2010 census)

That and the study by Cal-Berkeley a few years ago prove that any talk of a post-racial America is just ridiculous and people that believe that sh*t should be shot where they stand. Is America less racist than 40-50 years ago? To a degree yes, but other indicators of multi-culturalism being a success are fleeting at best.

There is a serious gender war underway in America and its impacts can be mostly felt in the Black Community.

That said there's a disconnect in White America too. White men are increasingly dating/marrying Asian women for a whole host of reasons, but you don't hear White women screaming about it like you hear Black women screaming about Black men not dating them.

9 out of 10 times Whites marry people that look like them. But they can't seem to relate for some reason. There has been a series of cultural changes in America from civil rights to lgbt issues that have impacted dating patterns.

The truth is however like Ali discovered the quite a bit of douchebag behavior among White men; I wouldn't be shocked if some men sent her fake profile dick pictures.... They certainly do that with transexuals.

The problem is White women aren't using their leverage in society to make White men act better generally. They may mock them and attack them for their knuckle dragging but that isn't going to work. As Paul Oyer found, dating in America (and elsewhere) is heavily connected to economics.

One thing I can tell you is that Black men have the most success finding White women who aren't looking for "rich men". Sure lots of really attractive White women are married to athletes and entertainers; but we aren't talking about "10's or 9's" we're talking "8's, 7's and 6's". In that sense there is deep pool of women to choose from. But racism and stereotypes keep interracial dating rates in the single digits.

If you want White men to stop attacking minorities and using stereotypes, have more interracial marriages and biracial children. You won't hear John Boner using coded messaging very much since his own daughter is married a Black man... People like those idiots on Duck Dynasty can say what they say because their families are homogeneous. Since most White families are homogeneous, guess what? That sort of viral, bigoted, knuckle dragging gets lots of play in the media.

If most families looked like the melting pot this country always claimed it is, there would be far more tolerance of others.

White men wouldn't engage in douchebaggery because as White women all you have to say is "I'll just date/marry somebody else". Right now so few even date men of other races; that these same homogeneous families that give ultimatums and threaten banishment if they brought a non-White man home to meet their parents.

Also White men from mixed families would be more swift with their condemnation of bigoted outburst from others.

I think too many in America got lulled into thinking we pushed quite a bit of this to the edges of society, when all it took was an engineered financial crisis to bring it back to the surface.

A real option for PJ Vogt is to find a nice Russian girl in NYC who doesn't have a lot of the social baggage Americans have.

I don't give suggestions to women in America especially White women because they are the source of many social and even some economic problems in America. They'll get their own comeuppance in the very near future.



This podcast raises a really big question for me that I was wondering if there is any data on. There was a hint of it in here, but then not answered. Is there a correlation between "compatibility" as defined by all these dating sites, and long term relationship success? Is it rational to believe that just because you like the same music, or match up on any of the other filters these sites use, that you'll make a better long-term match than two random people who meet at a gym or in a bar?

My guess is that some factors - perhaps religion or "big" things like that - would matter. But that other things, the "surface" things that most people focus on - don't significantly contribute to the long term success of a relationship. And if that's so, what are the factors that contribute, and could a dating site start-up have a competitive edge by using different profile questions and different filtering algorithms so give better chances of long term success?



I also find it fascinating that anyone is shocked that men don't really read any of the text, they just look at pictures and maybe a few data points in the info sidebar. Of court they don't, why would they? This is how the male mind works when sifting through thousands of online profiles:

1. Does she look like someone you'd want to have sex with?
No=next profile
Yes=proceed to step 2

2. Is this one of those deceptive profiles? (all high angle pics looking up at the camera framed neck up, and not a single picture showing her body, etc. Note: no matter what body type you have there are men out there attracted to your type, but he can't evaluate whether you are his type or not if all he can see is your face.)
Yes=next profile
No=proceed to step 3

3. Scanning the text of her profile in 5 seconds or less, do any deal breakers jump out? (is she racist or a hardcore devotee of a musical genre you can't stand, etc)
Yes=next profile
No=proceed to step 4

4. ask her on a date so you can find out if there is any chemistry between you--something you will never glean without meeting her in person even if you read every letter of text on her profile.

Guys don't want to read an essay about you. A woman who is perfect for you can have a terrible essay and a woman with a perfect essay can be terrible for you, so we don't read them because they are mostly useless. What we want to know is A) Do I find you attractive, and B) do we have chemistry?
A can be answered by looking at pictures on a computer screen. B can only be answered by meeting the person in the real world. Men really don't want to invest any time between step A and step B. As soon as I determine she's attractive, put me in room with her ASAP. Spare me the college essay.



The economic principle of debasing currency figures into the search process. It's the principle of "bad money chases out good." Bad coinage stays circulating indefinitely; whereas good coinage is removed from circulation, hoarded, and treasured by the recipient.

Individuals who either won't "settle" (such as commitment phobes, or Aaroncarterlover contacters) or are too unstable or difficult to make a stable match stay in circulation. They flood the market and increase search time and cost. The situation is akin to when people who would melt the king's official coinage down, add lead, recast it, and pass it off.

The end result is a clogged dating pool wary of all but "newly added" profiles and more "potential buyers" who will only accept a match above their level. It becomes rational to be irrational and unrealistic.

In used car markets, we have car-fax or dealer warranties. In dating at some point everyone is a car with prior owners. But there are no seals of approval other than leaving the dating market. There is no king's stamp of purity. There is an awful lot of dross amongst the gold. (Posted by a female!)



On the so called "thin markets" a popular site out here in more rural America is named "FarmersOnly".

I was surprised this one was not mentioned as a good example of why someone would want to pursue a thin market service.

A non-farmer marrying a farmer would have to expect a huge lifestyle changes, such as work hours, distance from ammenities, income stability, scope of work activities, work conditions, family expectations.

Also it is the only dating website pitched by talking cows.


I have had my own version of aaroncarterfan for about a year now. I originally created it when I created my real profile to browse through profiles without being detected as my true self. The fake profile actually has similar information as my true profile. Except I uploaded a rare photo of a hunky minor celebrity from a foreign country as profile picture. My true looks... I'm average on a good day. Anyway, you might be able to see where this is going. Yes, the hunk profile has had over 1200 views and over 200 messages in the same period my true profile has received 100 views and 3 messages. No real point here other than just more evidence that supports the claims being made on this podcast.

I have never written a comment on here before. For that matter, just about anywhere. I just had to on this one because now I can put this ego-bruising into perspective.

peter tetteroo

I did the same experiment.
Both the real and fake profile on OKCupid had similar personal stats.
But my my profile with a "hunk" pic was overwhelmed with hits.


Alli Reed: WOMEN DO THIS TOO. On OkCupid, as well.

YEARS before you did your "clever" experiment, I setup a male OKC profile with the same exact idea: pictures of a hot model-esque man, six-foot-four with a jawline cut from marble.

This fake profile was also full of sexist comments, anti-obesity insults, talk of being a lazy trust fund baby, gleeful musings about being a "player" and cheating on his past girlfriends (but it was HER fault, of course), etc, etc, etc.

The SAME THING happened. DOZENS of women contacted him.

Women are just as bad as men are when it comes to online dating.


Marina Adshade

I understand why, in theory, the rate of time preference should encourage us to be less picky as we get older, but the evidence does not bear that out (cited below). That paper finds that both men and women become pickier as they age when it comes to qualities like race, age, income, and height of a future mate, with women continuing to be much picker than men as they age. The most likely explanation for this is not that people are failing to discount the future properly, but rather that older singles are more willing to stay that way - they are less willing to compromise in order to be in a relationship.

I talk about this in my own book on this topic: Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love.

McIntosh, William D., Lawrence Locker, Katherine Briley, Rebecca Ryan, and Alison J. Scott. “What Do Older Adults Seek in Their Potential Romantic Partners? Evidence from Online Personal Ads.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 72, no. 1 (2011): 67–82.



Sorry but the sense I got after listening to this episode and reading this fake profile is that Alli Reed doesn't seem to understand online dating at all. There is nothing unique about this profile in any way. It comes off as someone being intentionally and completely sarcastic.

Aaron Carter

I think this woman has missed the point on her expiriment... by miles. The reason "AaronCarterFan" got a better response is simple... the "awful" personality is FUN and INTERESTING, while if her real profile was anything like most, it was plain and boring. That, and what she described as "awful" is actually what a lot of single men would find amusing, and in-line with their own behaviour. Not as much to do with looks as you'd think at first glance.