The internet is a great place to pretend to be someone you're not. That's why popular online dating site OKCupid looked at statistics and its user base to discover the biggest lies we tell to potential mates.
Nerds. As we all know, the internet is a great place to pretend to be someone you're not. For instance, here's me in Second Life having a great time:
Anyhow, in many online situations, self-misrepresentation is totally harmless. Like, who cares if your Halo 3 avatar is taller than you are in real life? Or if Flickr thinks you're single when you're really married? But in online dating, where the whole goal is to eventually meet other people in person, creating a false impression is a whole different deal.
People do everything they can in their OkCupid profiles to make themselves seem awesome, and surely many of our users genuinely are. But it's very hard for the casual browser to tell truth from fiction. With our behind-the-scenes perspective, we're able to shed some light on some typical claims and the likely realities behind them.
Let's get started.
"I'm 6 feet tall."
REALITY: People are two inches shorter in real life.
This whole post was inspired by an amusing graph we stumbled across while trying to answer the question Do taller guys have more sex? The answer, to a degree, is yes, and I'll expand on that in a little bit. But in this case what was more interesting than the sex was the (supposed) tallness of the guys.
The male heights on OkCupid very nearly follow the expected normal distribution - except the whole thing is shifted to the right of where it should be. You can see it better when we overlay the implied best fit below (pardon the technical language):
Almost universally guys like to add a couple inches. You can also see a more subtle vanity at work: starting at roughly 5'8", the top of the dotted curve tilts even further rightward. This means that guys as they get closer to six feet round up a bit more than usual, stretching for that coveted psychological benchmark.
When we looked into the data for women, we were surprised to see height exaggeration was just as widespread, though without the lurch towards a benchmark height:
On a somewhat humbling personal note, I just went back and looked at my own profile, and apparently I list myself at 5'11". Really, I'm a touch under 5'10". Hmmm.
. . .
As for whether it even makes sense for people to make such an obvious and easily disproved exaggeration, the jury is out. We've found that taller people, up to a point, have more sex:
But as far as messages go, shorter women actually seem to get more attention:
These are the average weekly unsolicited message totals by height; you can think of these as the number of times a person is "hit on" out of the blue each week on OkCupid. A 5'4" woman gets 60 more contacts each year than a six-footer. The genders are plotted on different scales because of the eternal fact that men almost always make the first move, so women get many more unsolicited messages.
It's plain from these two charts that women six feet or taller are either less attractive to men or are considered too intimidating to message. The data also raises the interesting possibility that these tall women are much more likely to sleep with a man who does approach them. Compare the 6'0" woman to her 5'4" counterpart: the taller woman gets hit on about two-thirds as much, yet has had slightly more sex partners.
"I make $US100,000 a year."
REALITY: People are 20% poorer than they say they are.
Apparently, an online dater's imagination is the best performing mutual fund of the last 10 years. Here's what people are saying on OkCupid, versus what their incomes should be:
Use the slider to watch as people exaggerate more as they get older. As you can see, people advertise disproportionately high salaries for themselves. Just to pick a symbolic amount, there are consistently four times the number of people making $US100K a year than there should be.
Note that in formulating the "expected" lines for each age we were very careful to adjust for OkCupid's particular demographics: we compared every individual against the average not just by age but by zip code. Here a breakdown by gender of the exaggeration rates:
A woman may earn 76 cents on the dollar for the same work as a man, but she can fabricate, like, 85 cents no problem.
. . .
We did a little investigating as to whether a person's stated income had any real effect on his or her online dating experience. Unsurprisingly, we found that it matters a lot, particularly for men. This is a by-age messaging distribution:
These bold colours contain a subtle message: if you're a young guy and don't make much money, cool. If you're 23 or older and don't make much money, go die in a fire. It's not hard to see where the incentive to exaggerate comes from.
"Here's a recent pic."
REALITY: The more attractive the picture, the more likely it is to be out-of-date.
The above picture, for example, was over two years old when it was uploaded. How do we know? Most modern cameras append text tags to the the jpgs they take. These tags, called EXIF metadata, specify things like the exposure and f-stop settings, gps information if your camera has it, and, of course, the time and date the photo was taken. This is how programs like iPhoto know when (and sometimes where) you've taken your pictures.
Analysing this stuff, we found that most of the pictures on OkCupid were of recent vintage; site-wide the median photo age at upload was just 92 days. However, hotter photos were much more likely to be outdated than normal ones. Here's a comparison (the age of a picture below is how old it was when it was uploaded to our site):
As you can see, over a third of the hottest photos on the site are a year old or more. And more than twice as many hot photos are over three years old (12 per cent) as average-looking ones (5 per cent), which makes sense because people are more inclined to cling to the pics that make them look their best
Another useful (if somewhat unorthodox) way to take in this graph is to follow the horizontal gridlines. If you trace out from "20 per cent", for example, you can see that 1 in 5 average-looking photos is at least a year old, meanwhile, among the hot photos, nearly 1 in 5 is at least two years old.
It also turns out that older people also upload older photos:
The upshot here is, if you see a good-looking picture of a man over 30, that photo is very likely to be out-of-date. Not to get personal again, but my own OkCupid photo shows a Burberry-dressed, 27 year-old, strumming away on his guitar. Meanwhile, I turn 35 in a couple months and am writing this post in the same shorts and tee-shirt I've been wearing for a week. Time waits for no man, unless that man doesn't update his personal information.
REALITY: 80% of self-identified bisexuals are only interested in one gender.
OkCupid is a gay- and bi-friendly place and it's not our intention here to call into question anyone's sexual identity. But when we looked into messaging trends by sexuality, we were very surprised at what we found. People who describe themselves as bisexual overwhelmingly message either one sex or the other, not both as you might expect. Site-wide, here's how it breaks out:
This suggests that bisexuality is often either a hedge for gay people or a label adopted by straights to appear more sexually adventurous to their (straight) matches. You can actually see these trends in action in the chart below.
Again this is just the data we've collected. We'd be very interested in our bisexual users' thoughts on this single-sex-messaging phenomenon, so if you'd like to weigh-in please use the comments section. Please note, everybody, that we don't assume that bis should be "into both genders equally". We only assume that they should be into both genders at all. The swaths of red and blue that you see in these sexuality charts represent people who message only one gender. The purple areas are people who send any messages, in whatever proportion, to both men and women.
In this chart, throughout the teens and twenties, the male bisexual population is mostly observably gay men. By the mid-thirties, it seems, most of these men are more comfortable self-identifying as gay and have left the bi population. By the end of our chart, 3 of every 4 bi males on OkCupid are observably straight. Meanwhile, the proportion of men who message both women and other men holds fairly steady.
The proportions for women are more consistent over time:
12 per cent of women under 35 on OkCupid (and the internet in general, I'd wager) self-identify as bi. However, as you can see above, only about 1 in 4 of those women is actually into both guys and girls at the same time. I know this will come as a big letdown to the straight male browsing population: three-fourths of your fantasies are, in fact, fantasies of a fantasy. Like bi men, most bi women are, for whatever reason, not observably bi. The primacy of America's most popular threesome, two dudes and an Xbox, is safe.
. . .
In gathering data for this last section on sexuality, we found so much interesting stuff that we're making it the topic of our next post. We'll look at the messaging, searching and stalking (!) patterns of gay, bi and straight people and see what else we can learn about the sexual continuum. Until then, no lie: thanks for reading.
OkCupid's data scientists, Max Shron and Aditya Mukerjee, contributed additional research to this post.
OKCupid is the leading free online dating site in the US, with over 4.5 monthly unique visitors. Its blog, OKTrends, compiles observations from hundreds of millions of real people's interactions on the site, revealing an unprecedented look into human behaviour.