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The counterintuitive evolution of online courtship behavior

Everyone hoped that online dating would level the playing field for men and women looking for partners. But instead, the latest data-mining study suggests it has become more asymmetric than ever.

One of the curious features of human courtship is the asymmetry between the roles that men and women play. In recent years, researchers have begun to study this phenomenon in more detail, thanks to the rise of online dating and the significant databases it generates. These show that in general, men tend to initiate contact, and women, often flooded with contacts, are more selective with their responses.

But online dating has changed the landscape for human courtship, and it may even be changing the nature of society. So it ought to be no surprise if it’s also changing the asymmetry between male and female courtship behaviors. Is that what is indeed happening? Is the asymmetry changing over time?

Today we get an answer, thanks to the work of Rachel Dinh and colleagues at the University of Oxford in the UK. These folks measured the change in online dating behavior on eHarmony’s UK website over a 10-year period.

They say that the asymmetry has indeed changed in this time, but it has not declined, as they expected. Instead, much to their surprise, the asymmetry has become more pronounced.

Their method is relatively straightforward. Dinh and company began with the profiles and messaging activity of 150,000 heterosexual users of the eHarmony UK website between 2007 and 2018. They then mined this data to determine the number of different individuals each user communicated with and whether he or she initiated contact. Because of the length of the study, they were able to see changes over time.

The results show that men consistently initiate contact more often than women. But over time this difference has increased—a finding that Dinh and co describe as counterintuitive. “While early on, people might have hoped online dating would create a more equal playing field for women to initiate courtship, it has become clear that online dating has not only reflected but exacerbated male-dominated initiation,” say Dinh and co.

The researchers think they know why. They suggest that women quickly learn that they are likely to be flooded with messages and so wait to receive them. By contrast, men quickly learn that there is little to be lost by reaching out, and so they increase their contact attempts.

The team members offer an additional explanation: “The introduction and mass popularity of mobile dating applications such as Tinder in 2014 could also explain the accelerated decline of female initiation over the following years, as online dating became more popular and the signaling and psychological costs for men sending messages declined.”

That throws an interesting light on the way courtship behavior is evolving online. Clearly the perceived cost of sending and replying to messages is an important issue. Men consider the cost low, while women sometime delay their responses for fear of appearing too keen. That kind of thinking seems to be driving the change in behavior.

Interestingly, several dating sites have emerged that attempt to alter this calculus. Dinh and co point to Bumble, a site that matches potential partners but allows only women to make the first contact. Significantly, a woman has just 24 hours to start a conversation, because after that, the match disappears. “Any worries that responding too quickly will signal over-enthusiasm are allayed because it is common knowledge that the app leaves no choice,” say Dinh and co.

That significantly changes the reckoning. “By tweaking traditional market design,” the researchers write, “Bumble strategically restricts behaviour to shift users out of a bad equilibrium—low-quality messages and low response rates—into a better one.”

Whether this kind of architecture will become more popular isn’t yet clear. But Bumble’s model does show how online behavior can evolve rapidly.

An interesting future avenue will be to see how the findings relate to real-world interactions where the traditional costs of initiating communication and the fear of rejection still apply. In such scenarios, changes in behavior are likely to be slower.

It is also possible that online courtship in the UK is significantly different from online courtship elsewhere in the world. So another line for future work would be to see how behavior varies geographically.

When it comes to data-mining courtship practices, there’s plenty of gold in them thar hills.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1809.10032 : Computational Courtship: Understanding the Evolution of Online Dating through Large-scale Data Analysis

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