I’ve been reading Aziz Ansari’s book, Modern Romance, which I heard about from his interview on the Freakonomics podcast. It intrigued me that a comedian would write a book that is not just full of jokes and humor but also solid independent research and references to other literature on the subject. There are graphs, charts, and footnotes to studies noting the changing landscape of the dating world, between all-caps complaints about “Tanya” not texting Ansari back after an important message.
The themes are obvious: texting on one’s phone is much more prevalent, including to start, maintain, and end all kinds of romantic relationships. People in the 50s and 60s much more commonly married those in their town, neighborhood, or even building, but now online dating has had huge impact on people’s ability to find romance.
I’m about halfway through the book now, and Ansari has a section about online dating profile pictures and the techniques to maximize messages from would-be-suitors. He says:
[W]hat’s weird is that men actually fare better when they are not smiling and are looking away from the camera. Whereas women did worse when they didn’t make eye contact, for guys, looking away was much more effective.
Rudder’s data shows that for women, the high-angle selfie is by far the most effective. Second is in bed, followed by outdoor and travel photos. At the lower end, the ones that are least effective are women drinking alcohol or posing with an animal.
Oddly enough, for men the most effective photos are ones with animals, followed by showing off muscles (six-packs, etc.), and then photos showing them doing something interesting.
Ansari doesn’t speculate as to why these trends exist, but I have some ideas. He includes a few images of what he’s talking about (that intuitively worked on me) that got me thinking.
I should emphasize that Ansari’s book is almost entirely devoted to heterosexual dating and relationships. He specifically mentions this in the introduction, which is fine, noting that an exploration of other topics (anything LGBT*, for instance) would warrant another entire volume. That’s fair, and this is possibly influenced by his own experience (not that I know Aziz Ansari’s sexual orientation), but that does mean that this post is entirely about women trying to attract men, and men trying to attract women.
Ansari first mentions that eye contact is important for women to attract men to message them. I wonder if this is playing into the desire men have to imagine themselves staring back in an romantic or sexual situation. Also successful is a coy, flirty look, instead of simply smiling.
The high-angle selfie is close-up and puts the viewer above the subject. This closely mirrors what the average man would see if he were very close, and it conveniently allows inclusion of more parts of the body in the image. It’s also telling that the second-most-popular image type is in the bedroom: perhaps men more easily place themselves in that situation. All of these “optimizations” women can make in creating a profile image could be considered a kind of meta-flirting, too.
Animals and beer in profile photos are no-nos if women want to attract men. I don’t have an obvious answer to why images of women drinking alcohol were less effective, but I do have a thought on animals. If it’s true that men are messaging women based mostly on the perceived proximity to sex, then a cute animal is just a distraction or even annoying. It’s something to shoo away or forget about when trying to be intimate.
All of this caters to what the stereotypical straight male wants in a woman: more emphasis on physical attractiveness and a shorter path to sex.
Men are actually discouraged from looking at the camera and smiling if trying to optimally attract women in online dating. To me, that signals independence and distance, again fitting into traditional attraction pathways of “playing hard to get” or having such confidence that one doesn’t need to give the appearance of trying.
Additionally, while not explicitly noted in the text of Ansari’s book, the men-not-smiling-while-looking-away example images all were from a bit farther away than the images of women. The person in the photo was smaller, leaving significantly more room for the outdoor scene or background. More of the examples of men were in landscape format.
That, to me, falls in line with stereotypical women’s attraction of being interested in the experience of dating a man more than his particular physique and the act of sex. While animals were bad for women’s profile pictures, they’re good for men’s, pointing to the much wider acceptance for showing character and personality in men’s profile photos.
My hypothesis isn’t comprehensive, though: the second most popular subject in a profile photo for men to attract women are muscles. That’s still a (literal) sign of strength that falls along the same spectrum as “independence”, but in a much more physical form. It’s not as if all women and men are attracted to the same thing; there can be multiple types of attraction that show themselves in the data.
Still, many of the trends that work for men’s profile pictures have nothing to do with physical attractiveness and much more to do with the enjoyment to be had from the larger experience with the man.
I noticed while describing what choices in creating profile photos get higher message return for women and men that the advice is in entirely different categories.
For women, the particulars of where the camera is placed and what it sees (of the subject) are key (high-angle selfie, more body, coy look, eye contact). The rules for what makes a successful woman’s profile picture are rigid for this attraction vector of man seeking woman (with sex in mind).
For men, while there are similar rules about where to look and whether or not to smile, there is no preferred angle. Seeing the body isn’t as strong a requirement. High on the list of what is successful is “doing something interesting”. That’s quite broad and ripe for possibilities.
There are a wide array of options and activities that are popularly accepted for men to do in profile photos, including ignoring the camera, wherever it may be. Women, on the other hand, receive more messages when posing in an expected form, for the static camera.
What Ansari doesn’t get into in this section is what the meaning of these differences is. Our complicated mess of desires and expectations when looking for a date, relationship, or hookup is a mixture of biology and culture. Historic gender roles and rules for romance and dating influence what we prefer, and it’s no accident, in my opinion, that the historically oppressed and objectified group is the one we still expect to pose for a camera, instead of taking control over it.
This post so far has been roughly equating “message volume” with success, or at least has been assuming that goal. The techniques described will statistically entice the most people to write messages.
Is that what everyone wants, though? Ansari addresses this:
Whereas “cleavage” shots of women got 49 percent more new contacts per month than average, the images that resulted in the most conversation showed people doing interesting things. […] These photos revealed something deeper about their interests or their lives and led to more meaningful conversations.
If one is looking for a hookup or otherwise doesn’t care to have a conversation or build a relationship, then the previous techniques might be best.
Once the low-effort mass messages from men to women are removed from the equation, though, it seems that what is desired in a profile picture for either sex comes into alignment. Those remaining are more interested in someone who shows off an impressive or fascinating hobby. The camera angles or the direction of gaze lower in priority compared to what the person is doing, or who they are.
The disparity in message volume should also be highlighted in this conversation. The most attractive men receive a comparable volume of messages as the least attractive women, and women receive multiple times the number of messages as equally-attractive men. Once we strip away the spammy messages from men to women, the techniques for women to get “quality” messages become similar to what the techniques for men to get any messages have constantly been.
This, to me, paints a picture where visibly, on the surface, sexism and outdated gender roles strongly influence online dating and people’s interactions, but underneath the top layer are less gendered interactions.
Conclusion and Caveats
I’m enjoying Modern Romance, but it’s just one book written by a witty, progressive, and passionate comedian talking to experts. I’m an amateur who was struck by the high-angle selfie requirement and started extrapolating and comparing expectations.
Admittedly even if all these findings were reversed, like anything in or around the realm of psychology and culture, I could have probably arm-twisted my way to another conclusion. I recognize that my hypotheses are just that: untested ideas based on observation.
I hope this post makes people think on the topic, and I welcome criticism. One subject I’m certainly not confident on are the actual differences in romantic attraction among genders. The misinformation out there is in equal or greater measure to the real data. So I stuck with terming it “stereotypical”. Correlations exist, as evidenced by the data, but peering into the minds of a gender I’m not isn’t a superpower of mine.
The featured image is a high-angle selfie of (the very self-conscious) me. The other images are the examples of successful (by message volume) profile pictures from Modern Romance.