Online dating has revolutionized the often awkward first date. Think about the classic rom-com You’ve Got Mail. There’s no way Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen Kelly wouldn’t have known that she was emailing/flirting with her bookstore rival Joe Fox (played by the ever charming Tom Hanks) if she’d been able to access his dating profile. Sure, they may not have even ended up together without that anonymity, but my point stands: Whether you’re an active account holder on Match.com or swiping left on Tinder, nowadays, it doesn’t take nearly as much time and effort to get to know a potential date before meeting them.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who use online dating tripled from 10 percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2016. But it’s only been in recent years that researchers have started gathering related scientific evidence. One of those studies, published this past August in the journal Science Advances, offers some really interesting findings regarding what makes someone desirable.
Using data gathered from active users of an unnamed heterosexual online dating site during the month of January 2014 (the study focused on four metropolitan markets: New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle), researchers found that it’s entirely possible to attract a person you might think is out of your league. An analysis of messaging patterns showed that men and women both reach out to partners who were, according to the study’s measures, about 25 percent more desirable than themselves.
As the study’s authors write, “It appears that people are pursuing a hybrid strategy with elements of both [matching and competition]—they are aware of their own position in the hierarchy and adjust their behavior accordingly while, at the same time, competing modestly for more desirable mates.”
The most eyebrow-raising result from the study, however, had to do with age: According to their analysis, women reach peak desirability at the age of 18. For some reason, after women become eligible to vote, their appeal begins to decline. Men, on the other hand, don’t reach peak desirability until they’re 50—yes FIFTY!
“The age gradient for women definitely surprised us—both in terms of the fact that it steadily declined from the time women were 18 to the time they were 65, and also how steep it was,” Elizabeth Bruch, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, told the New York Times.
It may also not surprise you to learn that the more education a man has, the more desirable he becomes online. A woman with a bachelor’s degree is also pretty hot—but once she starts pursuing a postgraduate education, her hotness level begins tapering off.
The study’s authors also found that in a vast majority of cases, it was men who first established contact online: In fact, more than 80 percent of the guys in their data set sent the first “You up?” (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) What’s interesting, though, is that both men and women tend to contact fewer potential partners if the people they typically hit up were more desirable than themselves. The study’s authors called this a “quality over quantity” approach.
Despite how grimy all of this feels—particularly if you’re a woman hoping to find Mr. or Ms. Right without leaving the comforts of your couch—we still go for online dating, if only for the slim chance we can get a date with an Idris Elba-lookalike. As the study states, “The chances of receiving a reply from a highly desirable partner may be low, but they remain well above zero, although one will have to work harder, and perhaps also wait longer, to make progress. Compared to the extraordinary effort male rats are willing to go through to mate with a desirable female; however, messaging two or three times as many potential partners to get a date seems quite a modest investment.”
See more: How to Win At Online Dating
Unless you’re the 30-year-old New York City woman cited in the study who received 1,504 messages in one month. That’s equivalent to one message every 30 minutes, day and night. If this is you, maybe deactivate your accounts and hit up a local bar instead.