The XX Factor

Difference Catches the Eye, Duh

I usually love OK Cupid’s blog posts analyzing the immense amount of data their website generates, but this one about women’s looks left me cold.  It’s not because of “objectification,” but because the post is drenched in so much undersexed geek logic that it completely misses the point of its own data. Once the words “game theory” came into play, I knew the author was going nowhere good with this.

Basically, the data show that women whose profile pictures provoke extreme reactions get e-mailed more than women who got more standardized reactions.  So, if you rate a “5” on their attractiveness scale, and it’s because 10 dudes rated you as a 5, you will get less e-mail than if it’s because five dudes gave you a 10 and five dudes gave you a 1.  The explanation they came up with for this was really weird–that guys who think the woman who provokes extreme reactions is good-looking also perceive that they have less competition for her, and that makes them likelier to e-mail her.

This is all wrong, for a couple of reasons.  One is that it presumes that men who think the woman who provokes extreme reactions is hot will know that other men think she’s ugly.  Maybe in some cases, but probably not that often.  But more importantly, this presumes a level of rationality in dating that simply isn’t there.  Yes, it makes logical sense to want something more if other people don’t want it (or her, in this case), but the psychological research shows that people actually want something/someone more if they perceive it/she is popular. Knowing that other men think a woman is ugly is most likely going to cause a guy to question his own taste, not double down.

I propose an alternate theory: Anyone or anything that provokes extreme reactions gets more attention, which translates into more e-mails.  For instance, they use tattoos as an example of something that provokes a reaction that creates a more extreme distribution of ratings.  Few people are indifferent to tattoos, but I imagine that a guy who is attracted to a woman with tattoos is thinking that her tattoos say something about her that he likes—that she’s adventurous and edgy—more than he’s thinking, “Those tattoos are sure to turn other guys off, which increases my chances.”  Also, just having tattoos means people look at you longer, because they’re eye-catching.  And, in my experience, they also give men who are hitting on you something to focus on; ever since I got visible tattoos, 99 percent of men who hit on me say something about them right away.  Just having an opening gambit on hand probably gives a guy more courage to hit “send.”