“More like OKStupid, amirite?”

That was the subject line of an email my friend James sent me yesterday. His email contained a link to this post by OK Cupid’s blog, where the OKC team sifts through their massive amounts of data to find interesting facts about people’s dating habits.

This latest post is called “The Mathematics of Beauty” and it purports to reveal a startling finding: women whose looks inspire a lot of disagreement among men (i.e., with some men rating them hot and others rating them ugly) get more messages. And the number of messages you receive is positively correlated with the number of men rating you a “5 out of 5,” but is negatively correlated with the number of men rating you a “4 out of 5.”  OK Cupid says, “This is a pretty crazy result, but every time we ran the numbers—changing the constraints, trying different data samples, and so on—it came back to stare us in the face.”

To explain these odd results, the OKCupid bloggers came up with two game theoretic stories: First, men who see a woman and think “She’s a 4” will also think “That’s cute enough for plenty of other men to be into her, so I’ll have lots of competition… but that’s not hot enough for it to be worth it for me to try anyway.” And second, if men think, “She’s really hot to me, but I bet other men will disagree,” they’ll be more likely to message her, because they expect less competition. So women with a polarizing look will turn off some men, but the men who are turned on will be even more likely to message her knowing that other men are turned off.

Based on these stories, OKCupid offers the following advice to its female users who want to get more messages from men:

“We now have mathematical evidence that minimizing your “flaws” is the opposite of what you should do. If you’re a little chubby, play it up. If you have a big nose, play it up. If you have a weird snaggletooth, play it up: statistically, the guys who don’t like it can only help you, and the ones who do like it will be all the more excited.”

Oh my. That sounds like really bad advice. Before people start enthusiastically pointing the camera at their fat rolls, maybe we should check and make sure this analysis is sound. Because my opinion is that OKCupid’s crazy results can easily be explained by much less counterintuitive stories than the ones they concoct.

First of all, the “attractiveness” ratings they’re using aren’t really attractiveness ratings. They come from a feature on the site called Quickmatch, which presents you with the profile pictures of a succession of people for you to rate from 1 to 5. But you’re free to click through to each person’s full profile. And if you like the way they present themselves through the written part of the profile, you might well rate them highly on Quickmatch; conversely, if you don’t like their written profiles, you might well rate them poorly. Treating those scores as pure “attractiveness” ratings is way off the mark.

Second of all, the way Quickmatch works is that if you rate someone a 4 or 5 and they similarly rate you a 4 or 5, then you both receive emails informing you of each other’s interest. So this data is even more tainted, because people are not simply thinking “How attractive is this person?” — they’re thinking “Do I want this person to contact me?” If you think someone’s not that attractive but you’d still want to date her, you might well rate her a 4 just in case she’s also interested in you.

In fact, I strongly suspect there are a lot of guys who just rate every single girl a 4 or 5, giving 5’s to the girls they think are good-looking and 4’s to everyone else. It’s a carpet-bombing strategy — why rule anyone out off the bat? (My suspicion is grounded in some results from a speed-dating study I worked on in college, with a psychology professor at Columbia; I got to look at the ratings sheets after each speed dating session, and there were plenty of guys who just circled the entire row of “YES” rather than circling YES or NO to each girl individually.)

And as you can imagine, if a lot of guys are using “4” to mean “anyone who’s not a 5,” then of course 4’s are going to be negatively correlated with the number of messages a girl gets, because many or most of those 4’s actually indicate 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s.

What I think the OKCupid blog post illustrates is how easy it is to come up with a story to explain any result, whether or not the result is real. To paraphrase my friend James for a minute: if you find yourself saying “I know this is crazy, but numbers don’t lie,” you should really calm down and check to see if you’ve made a mistake, because chances are, you have.

3 Responses to “More like OKStupid, amirite?”

  1. Mitra Yousefi says:

    “What I think the OKCupid blog post illustrates is how easy it is to come up with a story to explain any result, whether or not the result is real.” Couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. First of all, the “attractiveness” ratings they’re using aren’t really attractiveness ratings. They come from a feature on the site called Quickmatch, which presents you with the profile pictures of a succession of people for you to rate from 1 to 5. But you’re free to click through to each person’s full profile. And if you like the way they present themselves through the written part of the profile, you might well rate them highly on Quickmatch; conversely, if you don’t like their written profiles, you might well rate them poorly. Treating those scores as pure “attractiveness” ratings is way off the mark.

    I’m glad you pointed this out! Every other blog post I’ve seen about OKCupid’s misleading blog posts based on the 1-to-5 star ratings just parrots OKCupid interpretation. The star ratings are based on the photos and profile text. Even if you don’t “click through” to the full profile, you still see most of the profile text (everything except a list of about 10 “details” — height, religion, pets, etc. — and photo captions).

    Contrary to how OKCupid reports its findings, none of the text on OKCupid itself encourages you to rate people based on physical attractiveness. You clearly have free reign to give out stars based on whatever matters to you. Are there some men who care only about looks, and who thus give out ratings based solely on looks? Sure. But when the whole premise is that we’re examining data about lots of real individuals to empirically test our assumptions about dating behavior, it makes no sense to sneak in a stereotype as a planted axiom.

    For OKCupid to present its data as being all about women’s attractiveness, knowing full well that this is not how the ratings on its site actually work, is shockingly dishonest and opportunistic.

    Moreover, even if the star ratings were given based on photos alone, they still wouldn’t just be about “attractiveness.” If I see an OKCupid profile of a Scarlett Johansson lookalike, and all her photos of her at sports games or hunting or fishing, I’m not going to message her since I can tell we won’t be compatible. It won’t matter if I consider her to be in the 99th percentile of physical “beauty.”

    Also, anyone who’s savvy about QuickMatch knows that the ostensibly 5-star scale is a facade. It’s really a 2-point scale: all that matters is whether or not you rate someone 1-to-3, or 4-to-5. If two people rate each other 4 or 5, they get a message notifying them of this, but it doesn’t let you know exactly how the other person rated you. If you don’t want this to happen, you just need to rate them 1, 2, or 3 — it doesn’t matter which.

  3. Oh my. That sounds like really bad advice. Before people start enthusiastically pointing the camera at their fat rolls, maybe we should check and make sure this analysis is sound.

    I don’t think I agree here. While I think your analysis of the rest of the story is sound, I personally would rather not be “lied to” by pictures that obscure a flaw. When you finally meet the person, it can be very off-putting. I’d rather know what I’m getting myself into- are they romantic or friend material? I won’t know if they lie in their pictures (I’m shallow), and when meeting in person, feelings may be hurt.
    Second, and I’m sure this sounds hollow after what I said above, people need to accept themselves for who they are, not hide it. I see plenty of women with fat rolls and boyfriends or husbands, and likewise men with snaggleteeth. Don’t hide your flaws. Own them.

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