Prior to the influx of online dating sites and apps, one could scarcely explain the pursuit of love in scientific terms. However, thanks to a rich pool of data provided by Cupid's modern-day arrows, researchers can study all kinds of aspects about love and dating, including what makes someone desirable. In a recent study published in the journal Science Advances, sociologist Elizabeth E. Bruch and physicist M. E. J. Newman set out to do just that.
The pair studied heterosexual dating markets in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle using data from "a popular, free online dating service." They examined the demographics and messaging patterns of active users for a one-month period in order to discover the characteristics of desirable daters. Along with the number of messages received during the month-long window, the researchers also took into account the desirability of those sending the messages because "if you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumptively more desirable yourself," according to the study.
In addition to finding that both men and women pursue people who are out of their league, Bruch and Newman came to the startling—albiet not entirely unexpected—conclusion that women reach peak desirability at 18 while men's desirability doesn't begin to decline until age 50. (Just take a moment to let that 32-year discrepancy sink in).
"The age gradient for women definitely surprised us," Bruch told The New York Times. However, the Times points out that this is not the first study to find that men tend to seek out younger women while online dating. A 2010 study shared by popular dating site OkCupid found that a majority of men aged 22 to 30 using their services were interested in women younger than them. "The male fixation on youth distorts the dating pool," an OKCupid blog post about the study reads.
Some claim the explanation for this behavior has something to do with innate biological desires. For example, that youth is related to fertility, and men are driven to pursue a mate who can bear his children, developmental psychologist Michelle Drouin explains to The New York Times. However, other theories suggest that men really are "more interested in physical attractiveness," she says.
What's more, Bruch and Newman's study also revealed that the greater a man's education, the more desirable he is to women, but the same is not true for women with advanced levels of education. Their data suggest that post-graduate education is actually a less desirable characteristic in women.
These findings may come across as archaic and disheartening for some looking for love in a digital universe, but the good news is that when it comes to matters of the heart, science still can't entirely predict the laws of attraction that bring two people together. Let's just hope that real life chemistry outbids the idealistic expectations often sought after when dating online.