Your Looks and Your Inbox

November 17th, 2009 by Christian Rudder

This week we will confront an unfortunate truth of online dating: no matter how much time you spend polishing your profile, honing your IM banter, and perfecting your message introductions, it’s your picture that matters most.

We’re going to look at how your photos affect both the messages you get and how successful your own outgoing messages are. We all know that beautiful people are more successful daters, but let’s quantify by exactly how much.

To illustrate the exact spectrum of looks we’re talking about here, and to put some human faces on our discussion, I want to introduce a few photos of real OkCupid users. Here are two women near the top of our range.

[show men instead]

And here are two rated in the middle.

[show men instead]

As for photos at the bottom of the curve, it didn’t feel right to write someone and say “can I use you to illustrate the concept of ugliness on my blog?” so you’ll just have to extrapolate.

The above featured users have graciously agreed to let me post their pictures, so please don’t make them regret it. Funnily enough, I had to write about a dozen beautiful female users before anyone would even get back to me. Life imitates blog!

Anyhow, I know attractiveness is far from a universal concept, but maybe keep these folks in mind as we go through the data.

. . .

We’ll start with a simple line chart. The information I’ll present in this post is not normalized because, as we’ll see, it’s interesting how men and women evaluate looks differently.

Our chart shows how men have rated women, on a scale from 0 to 5. The curve is symmetric and surprisingly charitable: a woman is as likely to be considered extremely ugly as extremely beautiful, and the majority of women have been rated about “medium.” The chart looks normalized, even though it’s just the unfiltered opinions of our male users.

Given the popular wisdom that Hollywood, the Internet, and Photoshop have created unrealistic expectations of how a woman should look, I found the fairness and, well, realism, of this gray arc kind of heartening.

Now let’s superimpose the distribution of actual messages guys have sent:

When it comes down to actually choosing targets, men choose the modelesque. Someone like roomtodance
2/3 of male messages go to the top 1/3 of women.
above gets nearly 5 times as many messages as a typical woman and 28 times as many messages as a woman at the low end of our curve. Site-wide, two-thirds of male messages go to the best-looking third of women. So basically, guys are fighting each other 2-for-1 for the absolute best-rated females, while plenty of potentially charming, even cute, girls go unwritten.

The medical term for this is male pattern madness.

. . .

The female equivalent of the above chart shows a different bias:

As you can see from the gray line, women rate an incredible 80% of guys as worse-looking than medium. Very harsh. On the other hand, when it comes to actual messaging, women shift their expectations only just slightly ahead of the curve, which is a healthier pattern than guys’ pursuing the all-but-unattainable. But with the basic ratings so out-of-whack, the two curves together suggest some strange possibilities for the female thought process, the most salient of which is that the average-looking woman has convinced herself that the vast majority of males aren’t good enough for her, but she then goes right out and messages them anyway.

Just to illustrate that women are operating on a very different scale, here are just a few of the many, many guys we here in the office think are totally decent-looking, but that women have rated, in their occult way, as significantly less attractive than so-called “medium”:

Females of OkCupid, we site founders [Chris Coyne, Christian Rudder, Sam Yagan, and Max Krohn] say to you: ouch! Paradoxically, it seems it’s women, not men, who have unrealistic standards for the “average” member of the opposite sex.

Finally, I just want to combine the two charts to emphasize how much fuller the inboxes of good-looking people get. I have scaled this graph to show multiples of messages sent to the lowest-rated people. For instance, the most attractive guys get 11× the messages the lowest-rated do. The medium-rated get about 4×.

This graph also dramatically illustrates just how much more important a woman’s looks are than a guy’s.

. . .

Now let’s take a look at how senders’ and recipients’ attractivenesses affect reply rates, not just the number of messages sent.

As you’d expect, more attractive people get more replies. And since they themselves get so many more messages than everyone else, they write back much less frequently. Here’s the graph for female senders, plotted in evenly-spaced “attractiveness groups.”

And here’s the one for male senders.

One interesting thing seems to be going on here: when the best-looking men write the worst-looking women, taste the rainbow,
of self-esteem issues
their message success rate takes a big hit. The knee-jerk response would be to somehow chalk it up to hunky spammers, but we very carefully control for that in these articles, and in any event why would better-looking girls be drastically more susceptible to it? It seems to be some kind of self-confidence thing.

As we did before, I’m going to consolidate the line charts to show just how your attractiveness changes how often your messages get responses.

. . .

This post has been the preamble to the larger discussion of “what makes a good profile?” We’ve spent a lot of time on OkTrends looking at messages, and since your profile is the other important place you express yourself, we thought it deserved the same treatment.

I wanted to address physical attractiveness right at the start, because obviously it’s a huge factor in how successful your profile is. In the upcoming posts in this series, we’re going to control for attractiveness, so that we can deliver real and useful advice for all the non-models out there.

We’ll look at, among other things: what makes a good picture (is it taken outside? inside? is it full-body? a head-shot? with your pet snake? what?), what kinds of self-presentation will get you the most messages (jokey? flirty? all business?), and how much profile information is too much. Should be good.

[For a related analysis by dating app Hinge, see "What's The Biggest Challenge Men Face On Dating Apps?: A Q&A With Aviv Goldgeier, Junior Growth Engineer", 2017-04-08. For Tinder, see "Tinder Experiments II: Guys, unless you are really hot you are probably better off not wasting your time on Tinder — a quantitative socio-economic study", Neyt et al 2019, Mixmosa. —Editor]

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471 Responses to “Your Looks and Your Inbox”

  1. misfitgirl19 says:

    uh yea i still havnt gotten any mails……. picky ppl bleh

  2. Bergie says:

    … the women who rated the four men in the photos as being “unattractive” up there, are morons. You’re all lovely, don’t let a bunch of self-indulgent little girls tell you otherwise. ;)

  3. Squeedle says:

    @Bergie: Yeah I don’t know wtf these ladies are on. They all range from “cute” to “dollface”.

  4. This is surprisingly through and quantifiable.
    Most women are far more shallow than they want you to think. Look at all the smart guys who are kept as just friends because some girl wants mr Big from sex and the city to walk by and make her his carrie.

    Girls are barking up the wrong tree with that one. The smart guys are always the way to go.

  5. Anon says:

    I take it back, upon further google searching, that’s all four of the founders. well done guys…

  6. anon says:

    Of course, it’s also just possible that the female rating respondents have a different baseline that they’re operating off of.

    Personally, i always feel a little odd rating photos on sites like hotornot. For me, 10 is achievable only if you’re a diety (literally, not figuratively), and 9 requires a level of emotional connection that i can’t get from a lone picture. Similarly, 1 means i can barely look at the picture without gagging (literally, not figuratively), and 2 probably means that you’re suffering from some profound deformity. So within my rating system, 5 is almost average, 6 is good, and 8 is awesome but a rarity. I keep wishing there were a system programmed to correct for differences like that–or better yet, one that corrected for personal differences in perspective and allowed for decimals.

  7. chloe says:

    Your analysis does not include some factors which would significantly alter your conclusions had you accounted for them. You asked the women about the attractiveness of the four men in the photos, not whether they were good looking. Yes, good looking is a factor in attractiveness, but by no means the only one or even the most important one. Your statistical analysis fails to acknowledge this.

    For instance, the first blond, definitely good looking, with out a doubt. However, the hand on his shoulder indicates that he always feels the wanted object of other women. I would go further and guess he enjoys feeling envious rivalry over him by multiple women. This may seem harsh, but my conclusion is reinforced by the fact that he posted this picture. He could have chosen to crop out the other person’s presence more carefully. His not doing so means he is deliberately saying something with that hand. He is intentionally looking for women who want to steal him away. Also, his styling, the hair in particular, while fashionable also indicates that he is what I call a “manboy” good for one roll in the hay, but even that will be unsatisfactory because guys who enjoy being the object of rivalry of multiple women need never learn how to please sexually. All a woman gets from this setup is that she can say she bedded a cute guy. So, good looking but not attractive. Lastly, manboys inevitably need taking care of and end up making their partners in some way or other their mommy and resent her for it at the same time. In other words, guys like this need to grow up to earn the attentions of a good woman.

    The second picture, I won’t go into the level of detail as with the first, but my rationale may be inferred from my above comments. This guy is all self involved teen angst gone a bit stale. Also probably likes to more wack off, alone or with others, than share good sex or mature intimacy. He too, is not ready for a good woman.

    The third is my favorite of the bunch, but based on this sole photo, um no. If there were other photos demonstrating a more emotionally developed self, I would consider him very interesting, attractive, even though his features do not have the symmetrical well proportioned conformation generally associated with a good looking face. His smile is natural and unselfconscious. He seems to address the camera directly, genuinely with happiness. I like this. I also, though I almost smell the sweaty jock smell of dirty socks, other men also sweaty–manly but not in a way I want to enjoy a nice sweaty man. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the green field behind him because he’s not even wearing sport clothes. I just have a strong wiff of jock. Like I said, though in combination with other supporting photos my head may be turned, but if those other photos show a partyer who lives in sports bars and talks almost exclusively of sports in the office–definitely not attractive.

    The last guy, I don’t like his smile. It seems to be a genuine (eye engagement) but it’s a smile like in third grade where the photographer has a few reliably effective jokes to get to the next kid–or someone cut the cheese, hand in armpit style. The angle of his head, the way his collar stiffly frames him like he his clothes wear him not him wearing the clothes all show a lack of articulate development. Maybe this guy is still in high school, at least he looks like it. Either way, he too, is not yet ready for a real woman.

    You did not give information on the women assigning attractiveness or not. I am most likely a bit older than your largest population by age, but I know these are the factors for most women at most ages used to say these guys are not attractive. I will say that as I have gotten older, good looking is less important, but attraction is more important than ever. I find that well intended, mature, and pulled together show in obvious and subtle ways and these generally do not correlate with “good looking”. In fact, like women, even more than in than is the case for women, good looking is almost a detractor. Good looking men have not had to work on their other attributes like a less good looking man, and that less good looking man is all the more attractive for it. My last word on the subject is that if men want to enjoy the company of an interesting, mature woman who can give to them sexually, emotionally, then they are going to have to show that in a manly way, their physical look should give some indication that they are interesting, mature and can give sexually and emotionally. These days, when women don’t want to but can survive without a man, men need to understand that we look at them with the same maybe harsh scrutiny that men look at us (yeah we already know about the top one third women getting two thirds of men’s overtures) but in many ways, we are more open to possibilities they don’t contemplate at all because they are thinking with their dicks mostly. (Sorry about the graphic language but it is effective short hand for the truth.)

  8. Chris says:

    What about measuring how women reply to taller vs shorter men? I think by not accounting for height in this mathematical examination, you’re missing a HUGE part of the picture. Women clearly message taller men and reply to taller men more than shorter men. Even short women. I suggest you track users’ height in regards to message reply rates, etc.

  9. ramonaandries says:

    Who is that sweet guy from the last picture ( first from the right)? I want him.

  10. Scotty says:

    This data is very enlightening and rather accurate from my experiences.
    I have come to realize that women only look at the pictures. They state that they want smart, a sense of humor, honesty, conversationalist, or a good person who is educated. My pictures range in date from Feb of 08 to Oct. of 09. They aren’t the best pictures in the world, but they are what I have. I don’t take pictures of myself, and don’t necessarily have a picture hungry friend. I have lost approximately 25 pounds, since the latest picture was taken, but I have left these images up to see what kind of feedback I get when I message someone. I don’t get many responses at all. It can make it hard to be assertive and message someone. If I do get a flirt or message that someone else initiated, I always respond. It is called manners, and being a good person.
    My profile shows my wit, my smarts, my ability to be a good person, my employment, and I rarely get responses to e-mails that I send. Women in general have the tendency to ignore who they don’t think is worthy, instead of responding in a nice way and being kind. They would rather ignore the person’s genuine interest in them, since he isn’t a model or meat head. I personally take being ignored, as more of an insult than a response of not interested. My e-mails follow the guidlines you say to use and are not demeaning or disrespectful. I have lost most of my faith in women, because of the shallow judgemental way I feel I have been treated. I think it borderlines on cruel. Luckily, I have enough self confidence and respect for myself that these attitudes no longer hurt my feelings. I just tell myself, that person told me early on that they weren’t worth my effort.
    I work in a female dominated world(nursing), and quiz my co-workers on a regular basis on what they look for in a guy, I seem to be very dateable, and have been approached many times by different people. So, I know I have what it takes. Personally, I don’t date co-workers, and joined this site to meet someone because I don’t like going out to the bar scene or feeling like a predator at the grocery store. I have met a couple of people, but it seems like they are long distances or their profile is copy and pasted from someone else’s.

  11. Jenny says:

    Well… I think one thing that is not considered is the average ability to present oneself by gender.

    I have gone through a bunch of profiles of both men and women near my age. I am straight – but the average wonan IS much more attractive. Let me explain. Woman are use to being judged by their looks. That is probably why in a ladies room at a restaurant there are always women fixing their makeup or touching up their hair, or seeing if their blouse is properly tucked in. Men are less use to being judged by looks. SO – when I go through men’s profiles I am much more likely to see a man scowling at the camera and wearing an old tee shirt. Even an “unattractive” woman tends to try to put on something she thinks complements her coloring or figure, does her hair, and smiles or looks at least non-violent (very imporant to women).

    I think a future experiment would be to have men judge other men’s profiles on a scale of 1 to 5 based on things like “does this guy look sane?”, “did he wash or brush his hair before this picture was taken?” “does he look like he does not live in his parent’s basement?” “Is the expression on his face pleasant?” Then, show the men a cross-section of women’s profiles and ask the same questions – not asking about attractivess per se – but presentation. I bet women would generally be presenting themselves (regardless of inate attractiveness) better.

  12. phyllis says:

    I have a bone to pick with okcupid, my fiance-i’ll give our screen names-darksumatra got one of this messages, While I, wontongirl_ haven’t. He still shows up on my matches but I don’t on his.
    We are an 80% match. Thank god he thinks of me more highly then the okc staff. We met through okc too! I’m laughing over this practice. It’s just pretty damn stupid. One how can you decide who someone finds attractive? What if you should him someone with freckles and he thought freckles were disturbing? hmmmmm.

  13. cowbells says:

    I agree with Chris. I’d love to see what the statistics look like when height is taken into consideration.

  14. Paragon19 says:

    Is there any chance you can create a tool so us users can see our rates of replies, messages, views, etc? I like knowing where I stand.

  15. p90x workout says:

    Hudrends of people will agree with your opinion whoever many other’s will not agree,but I appreciate your work here.

  16. daniil_basov says:

    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  17. evergreenstater says:

    I have a bit of a quirky picture on my okcupid profile. I like it very much. In my humble opinion, it captures a playful, happier side of me, as I rarely smile. In fact, I like all of the pictures I have on okcupid. The question is will someone else like them and how will that person respond to it. My pictures do not consist of me with my shirt off or something else of that nature. Recently, I have wondered if my pictures are part of the reason many people don’t respond to me. I like them the way they are. Finding someone else who doesn’t mind is another problem

  18. al2061 says:

    I wrote the staff robot and didn’t get a response. Is that because the staff robot is the hottest beast on the planet and I don’t rate? Or because the staff robot was experiencing self-confidence issues and didn’t want to write back? Or maybe it’s a sexual orientation thing and staffrobot doesn’t write to guys – if so, I’m crushed.

  19. Doodlebug says:

    If guys could take a clear picture that would be a great help. I have to say that pictures use the bathroom mirroror the at home cell phone pictures reveal more about a guy than even they want known. For example: is the room neat ordoes it have that more casual look. May I suggest you use a digital camera with a timer on it? It may take a few shots but a nice clear pictures would give your profile some nice nice attention. :-)

  20. axisofignorance says:

    If those gentlemen above are below average then the polling females are in some kind of dreamworld. A world where Brad Pitt delivers their mail and Johnny Depp is their Barista.

    Excuse me, Zooey Deschanel is at the door with my pizza.

  21. Chris says:

    I’ve got one gripe: why are all the candidates white? A sample from all races, build ect should have be studied. This effectively insinuates ‘if you don’t resemble these gals/guys you are the bottom of the barrel we didn’t want to include.’ There is no diversity in race, no noticable variation in body-type, etc. Poorly done guys. Be more inclusive next time.