Study Of Aspirational Pursuits In Dating Defines What “Out Of Your League” Means

Online dating sites have become a large part of how people meet one another and start relationships, with some estimates saying that approximately 20% of all people in committed relationships met their partner online. In order to gain insights about how people interact over online dating platforms, researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed data collected through a popular online dating site and determined that there was a “ hierarchy of desirability” in the online dating world. Specifically, people tend to message those who approximately 25% more desirable than they are.

A Hierarchy Of Desirability

The study was published in the journal Science Advances and it analyzed the heterosexual dating habits of people on an anonymous “popular free online dating service”. The data pulled from the service was concentrated on users living in four different major metropolitan areas: New York, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle. The number of users analyzed was in the hundreds of thousands, though the dataset created out of the users’ data was anonymized and cleaned of any identifying details. The researchers examine the education level, ethnicity, and age of the individuals in the dataset and compared those variables with the number of messages they received. A person’s desirability was defined by the researchers as an amalgamation of the number of messages someone received and the desirability of the people who sent those messages.


While certain studies have found that a person’s ethnicity doesn’t have notable impacts on desirability, other studies have, and this specific study found that Asian women and white men were considered highest for desirability, judging by the number of messages they received. As mentioned before, both women and men tended to message people who were, on average, about 25% more desirable than they themselves were. The researchers explain that the website’s userbase is predominantly white, around 70% white. So in some respects, the desirability of certain ethnicities reflects the weight of white preferences on the site’s interactions.

Message Length

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The analysis of the data provided some interesting findings. One of the things the researchers discovered was that men, on average, wrote far more messages than women did. Meanwhile, women were less likely to respond to any given message. Both women and men wrote longer messages to potential partners that the model found were more desirable.

Interestingly, the amount of words contained in the message didn’t seem to correlate with the likelihood of a response, with one exception. It seems that shorter messages are just as likely to get a response as a longer message, which makes one wonder if it better to simply just say “hey” when doing a cost-benefit analysis of the time and energy invested in creating a long message. That said, the researchers acknowledged that they didn’t have access to the content of the messages themselves, only data on the length of the message, so it’s impossible to know if the shorter messages were concisely witty or charming.


The exception to this trend was in Seattle, where men who wrote longer messages had a higher chance of getting a response than men who wrote shorter messages. The study makes note of the fact that Seattle is a competitive dating scene for men because there are almost twice as many men there as there are women (on average, depending on variables like the specific area of the city and specific populations). It was found that more desirable people were likely to get longer messages in general.

Elizabeth Bruch, sociologist at the University of Michigan and lead author on the study, explains that while the probability of getting a response drops as the desirability gap widens, the response rate is still quite far from zero, so it might be worth it for those who are thinking about messaging people “out of their league”.

Desirable Attributes

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Some other notable findings of the study include the fact that while older men are considered more desirable, older women are typically considered less desirable. Postgraduate education is also linked with less desirability among women, unfortunately. Women’s overall desirability is higher the younger they are, and declines until they reach age 60, while men’s desirability increases until around age 50. All that said, these are simply averages, and there are plenty of people looking for partners outside of the average desirability criteria.

Bruch explains that the desirability hierarchy isn’t affected only by age, race, and education level, those were just the variables they tested for, which is one of the limitations of the study. Bruch says that the desirability hierarchy includes other factors, the traditional things people look for in apartner, wittiness, compassion, genetic factors, or whatever else it is that makes people want to message others.

People seem to have a gut knowledge of their approximate desirability, according to Bruch, who explains that people usually contact people who rank around the same as themselves, skewing slightly more desirable. Bruch explains:

The most common behavior for both men and women is to contact members of the opposite sex who on average have roughly the same ranking as themselves… a majority of both sexes tend to contact partners who are more desirable than themselves on average—and hardly any users contact partners who are significantly less desirable.

As for how to get more dates through online dating platforms, the researchers say that one thing is key – persistence. Brush notes that persistence pays off because while it may seem like you aren’t having any success, the average response rates for the average message are between 0% to 10%.

Michael Rosenfield, a sociology professor from Stanford University (not involved in the study) agreed persistence is a good strategy. Rosenfield says that the online dating world has a larger selection of dates to choose from, but the greater choice pays off more for people who are persistent. So it’s possible that messaging someone who’s “out of your league” may pay off eventually, as long as one keeps messaging different people. Just keep those low reply rates in mind and send out more messages.

About The Author

Daniel obtained his BS in Communications and is pursuing a Master's degree in the science of Human-Computer Interaction. He hopes to work on projects which bridge the sciences and humanities. His background in education and training is diverse including education in computer science, communication theory, psychology, and philosophy. He aims to create content that educates, persuades, entertains and inspires.