Online dating secrets, as revealed by math majors

For singles who brave the jungles of online dating, there's nothing like an experienced friend or two to offer advice. "Should I Photoshop out my Marilyn Monroe mole?" "What does it mean that her favorite movie is 'The Exorcist'?" "Do my smoldering eyes in this profile photo say, 'I'm yours' or 'I'm in pain?'"

Now imagine you had a few million friends who could guide you through the thicket with their epic tales of success and failure. That's the idea behind OkTrends (blog.okcupid.com), a blog written by the founders of OkCupid (www.okcupid.com), a free, online dating site that counts 7 million visitors each month.

Every six weeks or so, the bloggers — all former math majors from Harvard — examine the gold mine of dating data collected from their members' online interactions (properly scrubbed and anonymized, of course). They sort and sift, crunch and correlate, catching whatever nuggets of mating wisdom fall out.

Then they post a report of their findings — and the resultant dating tips — often with pop culture references, statistical graphs and pictures of half-naked young men and women.

"It's our version of an advice column," says Sam Yagan, OkCupid's chief executive. "We love the fact that our own data tell us what works on a date."

Even scientists drop by to see what they're up to — though their opinions on what they find there varies a lot.

"I'm a big fan," says Eli Finkel, associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University. "The posts are generally insightful, well-written and fun."

"These are not necessarily statistically reliable findings," says Viren Swami, a psychology researcher at the University of Westminster in London and co-author of "The Psychology of Physical Attraction." "They are interesting, but they could also potentially be very misleading and, at worst, quite far from the truth."

We invited experts with serious credentials in the science of mating and dating to weigh in on a few select OkTrend conclusions. Read on:

The advice: Ask about your potential soul-mate's taste in Wes Craven flicks, Albanian backpacking and life on the high seas.

The reasoning: The trove of data tapped by the OkTrends bloggers comes from multiple-choice "match questions." Thousands of questions — addressing tooth-brushing habits, politics, religion, more — are available; most on the dating site answer a couple of hundred.

So in this example, the bloggers noticed that couples who met on OkCupid and then left the site to pursue their relationship agreed most often on these three questions: "Do you like horror movies?" "Have you ever traveled around another country alone?" and "Wouldn't it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?"

Our scientists say: Makes sense. What you're measuring is what psychologists call "openness to experience," or the O Factor, says David McCord, a clinical psychologist and head of the psychology department at Western Carolina University. "People who seek stimulation and adventure, who are curious and open to new and different experiences — they'd be less likely to establish and comfortably maintain a relationship with very traditional, conservative, unimaginative, risk-avoidant individuals."

But here's the rub: If you're "high O" and drawn to similarly wild-and-crazy types but are seeking a successful long-term relationship, you may be asking for trouble. "Sensation-seeking and 'openness to experience' predict infidelity," says David M. Buss, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating."

The advice: Subtract 2 inches from whatever height your potential date claims to be. Knock 20% off the reported salary too.

The reasoning: The stated heights of men and women on OkCupid seem to follow the general shape and spread of typical heights in the general population — except they're shifted north by about 2 inches. The same goes for stated salaries, and the money discrepancy only increases with age. "Apparently, an online dater's imagination is the best performing mutual fund of the last 10 years," the bloggers write.

Our scientists say: For men, this makes sense. "Height suggests health, good genes and social dominance," McCord says. Rich is hot too. Notes Buss: "As I've shown in my study of 37 cultures, women universally value men with resources. Men deceive about their status and income in order to make themselves seem more desirable to women."

But why are women lying? Maybe they're not, says Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, co-author of "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters." He suggests women trying to get dates online may be having more difficulty finding mates than the average woman: They may have fatter paychecks than average (men by and large prefer to be the bacon-bringers) and may be taller than average (men and women tend to want the guy to be taller).

The advice: Women, flirt with the camera for your profile photo. Men, try giving it a cold shoulder.

The reasoning: Compared with women looking away from the camera, those who smiled or made what OkCupid analysts called a "flirty-face" tended to get about 1.5 additional new messages a month. But men who tried an aloof, no-eye-contact strategy got a better response to their emails — about 90% success compared with 60% if they made eye contact in their photos. From the blog: "Maybe women want a little mystery. What is he looking at?"

Our scientists say: "We and other researchers have documented that men interpret a woman's smile as a signal of sexual interest," Buss says. "So flirty smiles trigger what we call men's 'sexual over-perception bias.'" Or, as McCord puts it, "Flirting works. Duh."

But only for women, not men. "There is good evidence that men high in status smile less and that smiling is sometimes interpreted as a sign of submissiveness. Also, some male smiles can look like leers, so it's good to avoid those," Buss says.

That doesn't mean men should play aloof in person. McCord adds, "Looking into the distance draws the women in — but as the negotiation continues, kindness and generosity will begin to play a bigger role."

The advice: Men, show off your six-pack abs in your photo — but only if you're young.

The reasoning: A shirtless 19-year-old man, on average, gets contacted by more than 1.3 women for every one woman he contacts — so some women (perhaps drawn by the call of his pecs) are contacting him first. Meanwhile, a 31-year-old sporting the same "ab shot" drops to only 0.8 responses per attempt — much closer to the overall average of 0.6 responses per attempt. "We would never suggest to a Fitzgerald or a Dave Eggers to limit his profile to 100 words," the bloggers write, "and so why should guys with great bodies keep their best asset under wraps?"

Our scientists say: Hey, women like eye candy too. "We've found that women pursuing short-term mating go for the guys with the good bodies — the pool boy — even if they wouldn't consider him for a long-term mate," Buss says. But that changes as soon as the biological clock starts ticking: "Women in their 30s are less interested in abs than in wallets and other indicators that the man will be a good provider," says Marianne Brandon, clinical psychologist and sex therapist in Maryland, and author of "Monogamy: The Untold Story."

And, honestly, is he spending all his spare time gazing admiringly into the gym mirror? "Women see an older man showing off his abs as being silly …. Having a body like that may signal to a woman a level of narcissism and self-centeredness that is just not attractive," says Peter Jonason, psychology professor at the University of South Alabama.

The advice: Women, show off your décolletage, especially if you're not so young. (Just don't expect erudite discourse in return.)

The reasoning: An 18-year-old woman with a so-called cleavage shot for her profile gets about 14 new contacts per month on average — 24% higher than the typical non-cleavage-baring 18-year-old. At age 32, she gets about 13 new contacts — but now that's a whopping 79% higher than high-collared women of the same age. Bottom line: A strategically placed neckline can slow the decline of slavish male attention. "The older the woman, the more relatively successful she is showing off her body," the bloggers write. Still, they add, the kinds of responses you're likely to get may not lead you anywhere.

Our scientists say: Need you really ask? "This is one of their few conclusions that does make sense," Kanazawa says. "Women's mate value declines with age. But they can compensate for their decline in mate value by showing their cleavage." Or, more bluntly: "It's bait," Jonason says.

But maybe button up if you're looking for something serious: To men, Buss says, revealing too much flesh may be a sign of promiscuity. "Promiscuity is something men don't mind at all in short-term mating but really don't like in long-term mating, for obvious evolutionary reasons."

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