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How Big Data Confirms, And Sometimes Confounds, Gender Stereotypes

Yes, Tinder is a Brave New World. But it also, depressingly for some, seems it’s not so different to the old one
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If you think you have problems on Tinder, spare a thought for Michael. Michael, 24, entered the New York dating scene with a bold flourish. He swiped right on every available singleton in the city - then waited. And waited.

Just 0.6% of the city liked him back. Of those who did, subsequent analysis showed almost 90% were gay men. Michael did not get many dates.

Michael, of course, was a computer program. But unlike most such bots, he was not selling anything or stealing data - he was created by sex researchers. And elsewhere another program, Hannah, was doing the same thing. Her results were very different: ten per cent of New York’s eligible bachelors said they were keen. Hannah had the pick of the bunch.

The time was, back in the distant days of the early 2000s, when in universities sex and relationship researchers used to write entire papers on the basis of a single speed dating experiment. The internet, and internet dating, has changed that - it is now common to write up studies that use millions of swipes, messages, or even just profile views. And what have these researcher found? That it is almost surprising just how unsurprising we are.

Or, as one data scientist put it, “You get the hardest-core clichés you could imagine…people are very stereotypical in aggregate.”

Gender, we are told, is changing. So much so, that some argue it doesn’t really even exist. Are they right? I have just written a book. My book is not about whether men are better at computer programming or women are better at being nurses. I do not deal with female multi-tasking, male map-reading or gendered approaches to parallel parking.

What I do deal with is what I consider to be the core of gender identity - the place where biology meets behaviour. Sex.

At all ages, the average woman’s ideal man is roughly the same age as her. At all ages, the average man’s ideal woman is aged 22

We all know the stereotypes of dating - the men looking for quick sex, the women looking for rich men. But do they hold true in an online world that gives us more freedom than ever to be our true selves?

Alas yes. Here are some findings. The most popular women on dating websites are thin, young and educated but not too educated. The most popular man is wealthy, with a doctorate (although not one he brags about) and looking for a relationship rather than casual sex. In other words he is a provider. Men market themselves by talking about their profession. Women market themselves by talking about their bodies.

Women lie about their weight, men lie about their height. Men are more attracted to screen names relating to appearance (for example Cutie, Blondie). Women are more attracted to screen names indicating intelligence (for example Cultured).

Women are happy (or at least happier) to consider older men, but they draw the line at shorter ones – refusing to look at the profiles of men they would look down on in heels. At all ages, the average woman’s ideal man is roughly the same age as her. At all ages, the average man’s ideal woman is aged 22.

Yes, Tinder is a Brave New World. But it also, depressingly for some, seems it’s not so different to the old one.

And yet amid it all, amid all the noise of sexual conflict, there is the signal of something that points to a more nuanced possibility. You can see within the data the tentative forays of people trying to break out of their social roles. The clearest of these are the shy cougars.

For all the evidence that men prefer younger women, and women prefer men their own age, there is a significant subset of older women who browse the profiles of younger men. They seek them out, they read their interests, their finger hovers over the “message” button - and then...they bottle it.

Maybe they would find, were they to muster the courage to click “send”, that the real life Michaels of the world, beaten down by the constant rejection of Tinder, are receptive to experienced women after all.

X and WHY – The Rules Of Attraction: Why Gender Still Matters by Tom Whipple, is available now, published by Short Books