I was about 15 minutes into a date with a woman I met on OkCupid when she boasted that in 2008 she’d voted for John McCain. I hadn’t asked. She brought it up. She wanted me to know it was a badge of honor for her.
I’d voted the other way. And I was curious about her thinking. “Did you have any reservations about Sarah Palin?” I asked, delicately. “She was a disappointment to me,” came the answer, cryptically. We left it at that, and she moved on to talking about David Cronenberg movies.
Casting a vote for a Republican is by no means a date deal breaker as far as I’m concerned. (Some of my best friends are Republicans! Really!) But I confess this revelation threw a different light across the gal’s smile. It changed the background music playing behind her monologues.
It’s always seemed a decent guess that we let political affiliations influence our attraction to a potential valentine. But now we have numbers. A recent study demonstrates that having similar political beliefs makes us more likely to be interested in a person when we view his or her online dating profile.
Neil Malhotra, a political economist at Stanford Business School, says he became curious about the question as he watched partisan polarization increase over the past several years. “It seemed like the country was getting more divided,” he says. He kept hearing friends say they would never date someone from across the aisle. One woman ended a relationship that was going well after she discovered the guy was a conservative. “I had a suspicion,” says Malhotra, “this polarization was influencing our lives in ways that went beyond elections.”
In the first experiment, 197 subjects were brought into a Stanford behavioral lab and shown profiles of fictional people. The profiles were made to look just like those posted on dating websites. The researchers could play with different variables—such as keeping the photo the same while switching the fictional person’s religion, level of educational attainment, or political preference.
The results showed that religion could cause a 4.5 percent swing in how eager a subject was to date a fictional prospect. Education had a 3 percent effect. And matched political ideology also had a 3 percent effect. Even if the fictional person’s photo stayed exactly the same, ratings of physical attractiveness increased by 2.2 percent if the fake person listed a political preference that was the same as the profile viewer’s. (Which explains why my date suddenly looked a little different to me after I learned she’d pulled the lever for the maverick and the hockey mom.)
In a second analysis, the researchers partnered with OkCupid to gather data from real-life date-seekers. The key measurement here was what Malhotra calls “joint communication behavior.” If a message was sent from one person’s profile to another and it received a reply, that was deemed an indication of mutual dating interest.
On OkCupid, according to Malhotra, by far the biggest predictor of interest is relative age. Being within five years of a dating prospect’s age doubles the likelihood that you’ll have interest. Next comes shared religion, which predicts a 50 percent interest boost. Shared ethnicity increases interest by 16.6 percent. Education has a 10.6 percent effect. And shared political partisanship raises dating interest levels by 9.5 percent.
“Things like race and education are traditionally very big factors when we look for our potential partners,” says Malhotra. “So it’s notable that political affiliation is having an effect this powerful and is rivaling other forms of sorting.” (The full study can be read here [PDF].)
Malhotra’s takeaway? He’s concerned that partisanship might intensify if we all keep pairing off with politically like-minded souls. “We see congressional districts becoming more lopsided,” he says, “as people with the same affiliation choose to live near each other. People forming households based on shared ideologies might lead the next generation to become even more polarized. Research shows that if your parents have different political beliefs, you’re more likely to be moderate, whereas if both parents have the same beliefs, it can make you more extreme.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the study seemed to reveal that fiscal attitudes swayed people’s interest in a potential partner even more than social policy beliefs. Malhotra thinks this might be because religion can serve as a proxy for social values, making this aspect of the political divide less relevant than budget and tax priorities. “When you sort for religion, you can in part be sorting for beliefs about abortion and other social policies. But your feelings about the role of government in the economy might be a different matter.”
One cause for hope, before you despair over the coming wave of infant ideologues: General levels of interest in politics—no matter which side you favor—had about the same effect on dating desires as did actual partisan affiliation. It seems we don’t mind a little arguing over candlelight, as long as the subject is something we’re both passionate about.
As for my OkCupid date? I could have forgiven her McCain/Palin vote. But I didn’t.