Cracking the lens

27th August, 2005

Dear Economist,
I’m busy and I’m looking for love, so I’ve posted my profile on some online dating sites. I make a good living in the City but, as I’m slightly overweight and my nose is too big, I’ve avoided including a photograph. So far I’ve not had a single reply – what am I doing wrong?

— Samantha Williamson, Shoreditch

Dear Samantha,

You can claim what you like and post a photo of a slim, stunning young model but, although such lies will secure you many inquiries, none of the dates are likely to go well. An optimum strategy is to go for exaggeration.

This is, indeed, what most people do, according to the economists Ali Hortacsu and Gunter Hitsch and the economic psychologist Dan Ariely. They studied 30,000 online adverts to see what people were saying about themselves and whether it attracted replies.

People claim to be richer, slimmer, blonder and more beautiful than one would expect: two-thirds of online daters have “above-average” looks and just one in a hundred admit “below-average”. So, claim above-average looks yourself, and who is to gainsay you?

It may also be a mistake to be too candid about your high salary. Women reply to rich men but, for some reason, men prefer women with middling incomes.

Your biggest mistake, though, is not to post your photograph. People without photos rarely get inquiries – with good reason. Anyone with above-average looks will post a photo and prove it; those without photos, therefore, will be assumed to be plain. But then, those who are merely plain can also post photos. Then, those who are ugly will follow suit to distinguish themselves from those who shatter the camera lens. You don’t want to bracket yourself down there, so point your sneezer at the camera and smile.

Continued on

Update: We’re in the New York Times again, subscription free, so the full text is now also here.

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