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To No One’s Surprise, These Dating Profile Strategies Get Results: Study

To No One’s Surprise, These Dating Profile Strategies Get Results: Study: © CI2 / Corbis

© CI2 / Corbis

People of all ages date online, but it tends to be most popular among the 25-34-year-old crowd. In fact, one in five adults in this age group have tried online dating before.

Newcomers often agonize when it comes to creating a personal ad or profile because they don’t know what they should say. How do you stand out in such a crowded field? This uncertainty is probably why 30 percent of women and 16 percent of men who date online ask their friends for help.

So what approach tends to be most popular? A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior finds that men and women are drawn to ads that emphasize different traits and characteristics.

Evolutionary theorists have long argued that men and women look for different things when choosing a long-term partner because they face different reproductive costs. The basic argument is that men tend to look for women who are healthy and fertile, while women tend to look for men who can provide. As a result, men tend to be a little more focused on looks and women on status and wealth.

The researchers therefore predicted that online personal ads placed by women would receive more replies to the extent that they emphasized physical attractiveness. Likewise, they expected ads placed by men to receive more replies if they focused on professional success.

In order to test these ideas, fake personal ads were posted on Craigslist pages in seven different U.S. cities. The ads were text-only, with no photos, which as you know is not the typical online dating experience. Given these limitations, the results are nonetheless illuminative.

Specifically, four ads were posted under the women seeking men (WSM) section, while another four ads were posted under the men seeking women (MSW) section. Each ad ran for two weeks. The ads were very similar in nature, but each emphasized a different personal trait.

The WSM ads varied in terms of whether the woman described was slim and attractive, sensual and passionate, or successful and ambitious. The fourth ad was generic and didn’t mention any of these characteristics.

The MSW ads varied in terms of whether the man described was good-looking, successful and accomplished, or a hopeless romantic. Again, the fourth ad was generic.

What the researchers were looking for were differences in how many replies each of these fake ads received. Before looking at those differences, it’s worth mentioning that, in total, the WSM ads received 4.5 times as many responses as the MSW ads. This tells us that there seem to be a heck of a lot more guys out there reading and responding to personal ads than there are women (at least on Craigslist)!

Below, you can see the percentage of total responses received that went to each ad separately for WSM and MSW.

Traits Women Seeking Men (WSM) Men Seeking Women (MSW)
Attractive 39% 12%
Successful 29% 58%
Sensual/Romantic 17% 14%
Generic 15% 16%

As expected, the women presented as thin and attractive received significantly more replies from male suitors than women who were described any other way.

Women presented as successful and ambitious received the second highest number of replies. Their response rate was significantly higher than the sensual/passionate and generic ads, which were essentially tied for last. Thus, both good looks and success increased the likelihood of a woman getting a reply.

What about the guys?

As expected, men who were described as successful received the vast majority of all responses, with the remainder being split about evenly between the attractive, hopelessly romantic and generic ads. Among men, success was the only trait linked to an increased likelihood of getting responses from women.

In addition to the oddity of the ads being text-only, this study varied each trait independently. It could be that personal ads would receive even more replies if they included certain combinations of traits (e.g., a woman who describes herself as both attractive and successful may get more attention than a woman who only mentions one of these traits).

These results tell us that men and women seem to respond to different things online, with ads emphasizing women’s looks and men’s accomplishments being the most successful. These differences are consistent with the idea that the sexes have evolved different mating strategies.

While these insights might help some people to craft a more popular personal ad, let me caution that these findings aren’t an excuse to lie or exaggerate online. There’s already too much catfishing out there as it is.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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