Dating profiles from first principles: heterosexual male profile design

by Xodarap21 min read25th Oct 202132 comments

80

Relationships (Interpersonal)Practical
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Executive Summary

  • While romantic preferences are idiosyncratic, certain attributes are widely considered attractive by heterosexual women. The evidence for this is particularly strong in populations frequently studied by psychologists (i.e. psychology undergraduate students).
  • My general advice is to consider these frequently-desired attributes and orient your profile towards signaling that you are at least average in each of them. They are: aesthetics, mental health, social capital, wealth, physical attractiveness, and niceness.
  • There is some evidence that women are risk-averse rather than expectation maximizing, i.e. it's more important to indicate that you are at least acceptable on each of these dimensions than it is to indicate that you are exceptional on one of them.

If you only have two minutes

If you only have 2 minutes, I would suggest the following exercise:

Imagine it's after your first date. Your date goes home and texts her group chat "you won't believe it but I met the most amazing guy! He _____." What's that thing she is so excited about? Make sure that thing is immediately visible from your profile. 

Epistemic Confidence

Part of why I'm writing this is that I think people are terrible at dating by default, so even mediocre advice is likely to make them better. I do not claim that this advice will make any man more attractive to any woman, but do think it's quite likely to make the median man more attractive to the median woman.

I have had writing this article on my to-do list for a while, and decided that I would never actually write it if every claim was individually cited. Instead, I am including a list of all works that I've drawn on at the bottom. It's important to emphasize that I think this information is more helpful than not to the median straight man, but psychology research is often not that rigorous (I somewhat recently found out that a paper I frequently mentioned had some of its major claims retracted), and even when it's good there is simply so much human variation that it's hard to make universal claims.

Basic principles

The secret to an attractive profile is:

  1. Understand what your partner wants
  2. Signal that dating you will give them that

This seems basic, but I'm surprised how few people understand it.

When someone asks me whether they should grow a beard or double text or go to a club on the first date, the answer is always: "well, what does the person you are trying to attract want?"

Figuring out what someone wants is a complicated skill, but this article attempts to summarize common preferences in heterosexual women. It draws heavily on academic psychological research, which means that the claims are most true for young undergraduates in top Western universities.

I believe the advice in this article will be helpful to the average single man, but it is no substitute for actually getting to know the person you want to attract.

Traits - Introduction

Thresholds and Homophily

We examine a variety of traits when evaluating potential romantic partners. Some traits have constant or even increasing marginal returns. For example, being more physically attractive will get you more romantic attention, and there's no "maximum" point at which being more attractive is not beneficial.

In contrast, other traits seem to have a "threshold". Frequently, this threshold is “the same as me”, i.e. we want partners who score at least as well as we do on some trait. Dating someone who is the same level as you is referred to as “homophily”; hypergamy and hypogamy are the terms for when your partner has more or less of the trait than you do, respectively. Some examples:

People prefer dating those who have approximately the same number of years of education as they themselves do:

Women prefer dating taller men (and men prefer dating shorter women):

These examples are preferences that can be easily quantified, but even a brief conversation with someone will turn up similar “thresholds” for less quantifiable traits: “I would never date someone who had stains on their clothes/lives with their parents/doesn’t text me back within an hour/etc.”,

This document is oriented around helping you reach this "threshold" in each trait. Unfortunately, there is no universal threshold. Instead, you will have to consider the sort of person you want to date and what criteria they may have. Asking female friends who are similar to those you would like to date what their criteria are may help you identify the appropriate thresholds.

T-shape

I generally suggest being "T-shaped" in the sense that you are at least adequate across all dimensions, and then go deep along one particular dimension in which you excel. 

In each trait, I will list

  • Ways in which you can bring yourself up to the threshold, if you are below it
  • Ways in which you can signal that you are far above the threshold, if you are above it

I recommend at least doing these things which bring you up to the threshold, for each trait, and then choosing one or two in which you want to signal being above the threshold.

You may also wish to signal being above average in some trait not listed here. That seems fine to me, but I would still recommend indicating at least averageness in all of these traits.

Trait list

I'm mostly just asserting without argument that these traits are attractive – if you want to read a popular summary of why these traits are attractive, Mate has the rare distinction of being a dating advice book which received a positive review from a peer-reviewed academic journal and discusses them in depth.

I want to emphasize that these traits are genuinely all important. This is not "women actually only care how tall you are but I'm going to talk about 'inner beauty' because it's too mean to say 'short guys need not apply'." While excelling at one trait can offset underperformance in another, traits are not perfect substitutes and I genuinely do think it's important to do at least okay at all of these.

Aesthetics

  • Bare minimum/if you are below average:
    • Buy (or rent) clothes which fit and wear them in your pictures. Focus on fit over being "fashionable".
    • Take pictures in unobjectionable locations. It's fine if you live in a dilapidated frat house, but do not take pictures there. Take pictures at the coffee house down the street or something instead.
  • If you are above average:
    • If you are a fashionista you probably already know how to show that off in pictures.

Mental Health

Note: dating is often bad for your mental health. Men on Tinder average a ~94% rejection rate. Unfortunately, women generally want to go out with you to have fun, not to hear about your mental health problems. I don't have a clever solution for this, other than to state that it is perfectly reasonable to focus on improving your mental health instead of dating.

  • Bare minimum/if you are below average:
    • Smile in your pictures! Really! Even though professional models make a weird grimace in their photos! Prospective partners care more about you being fun than your bone structure.
    • Also don't try to look tough. Either you succeed and women will be too scared to meet you or you fail and look stupid.
    • Show that you have hobbies and leave the house. Take pictures outside.
    • Keep the tone of your profile casual and fun. Don't message too intensely, at least at first.
  • If you are above average:
    • If you are the sort of person who is always upbeat and positive, try to signal this through your expression, posture, and clothes.
    • Certain activities require above average mental fortitude, e.g. caregiving. Mention or take pictures of yourself doing these activities.

Social Capital

  • Bare minimum/if you are below average:
    • Have at least two pictures of you with friends. If you don't have friends, find strangers to take pictures with. Preferably strangers who are less attractive than you.
  • If you are above average:
    • If you are good at social organizing, include pictures of parties or events you've thrown. Include a caption to clarify that you are the one who organized the party. Screenshotting a snapchat with a message is a low-key way to caption your pictures without seeming like you're captioning them.
    • Include pictures in which you are clearly the center of attention, e.g. you telling a story to an enraptured audience at a party.

Wealth

  • Bare minimum/if you are below average:
    • Take pictures outside. The forest looks the same no matter how much money you have.
    • Showcase yourself doing hobbies that don't involve spending money. A poor hiker looks an awful lot like a rich hiker.
  • If you are above average:
    • Instagram is basically a global exercise in showcasing wealth through photos. So you can look at those for inspiration.
    • Pictures on yachts and exotic travel locations are two standard ways of signaling wealth in pictures.
    • Certain hobbies (e.g. polo) are also associated with wealth.

Physical Health/Attractiveness

  • Bare minimum/if you are below average:
    • Test your photos. (See below.)
    • Some advice on posing which I frequently reference: 
      • Things which are close to the camera will look bigger and things further away will look smaller. Consider using side angles where your arm/bicep is close to the camera and stomach is further away. (Shoulder to waist ratio is well correlated with female evaluations of male attractiveness.)
      • Phone cameras have fisheye lenses which distort images in a universally unflattering way. Move the phone back and zoom in to counteract this effect (or use a non-phone camera).
      • Use lights from many different angles (or a ring light) in order to avoid shadows which exaggerate wrinkles.
      • One standard trick is: point your feet 90° away from the camera, then twist your torso to face the camera while standing as tall as you can with broad shoulders. This will stretch your body out, making your stomach narrower.
    • YouTube has a plethora of videos on posing advice for men.
  • If you are above average:
    • Physical attractiveness is surprisingly hard to display for men, largely because clothes that show off your physique (e.g. tank tops) are considered low status/poor aesthetics.
    • I would recommend against including shirtless pictures, even if you have well-developed abs, unless you feel like you have a strong aesthetic sense.
    • Instead, search pictures of male models who have similar physiques to you and try to copy their poses.

Niceness

Note: People seem very confused about niceness. Women don’t generally love assholes, but neither will basic “nice guy”-ness cause them to swoon. Women repeatedly mention niceness as a desirable characteristic in romantic partners, and this is true across a wide variety of cultures, but, as I repeatedly state in this document, being nice alone is not enough to be maximally attractive. Niceness needs to be combined with performance in other traits.

  • Bare minimum/if you are below average:
    • Smile in your pictures
    • Use friendly messaging. Avoid unsolicited sexual aggression.
  • If you are above average:
    • One advantage of niceness is that you often have above average social capital – display this by taking pictures with lots of friends etc.
    • Mention or show pictures of you volunteering/helping others
    • Take pictures with pets or small children

Objections to this approach

I am only attracted to women who satisfy (obscure criterion). Shouldn't I orient my profile to that?

No. Even if your future partner is attracted to your love of 17th century Italian literature, being slovenly will still be a turnoff for them.

Additionally, dating apps are based on the (fairly well validated) premise that attractiveness ratings are well correlated across individuals. If some women find you unattractive – even if you are not attracted to those women yourself – your profile will not be shown as frequently to other women, even those who might be attracted to your idiosyncrasies. (Tinder implements this through assigning each user Elo rating which goes up every time someone swipes right on them and down every time someone swipes left. Profiles with lower ratings are shown less frequently.)

I think that the opposite of your advice is attractive

This is sometimes reasonable, and can occur because of counter signaling. E.g. fashionistas will intentionally wear clothes which don't fit to signal that they are so fashionable they can violate standard rules of fashion.

Additional examples include:

  • Moody artists whose depressive traits are attractive, despite signaling bad mental health
  • Cocky athletes whose aggression is attractive, despite signaling poor niceness

If you are an expert in one of these traits then you should certainly ignore my advice. But do it thoughtfully – wearing stained clothes because you are too lazy to buy new ones is unlikely to be attractive.

Evaluating your photos

Photos are an astonishingly inaccurate signal of a person's traits. For example, photos of me vary between the 30th and the 95th percentile of physical attractiveness – this is practically the entire range of human variation!

The good news is that this means that, by putting in the effort to take and evaluate a large number of pictures, you can outperform peers who just take a terrible phone selfie. The bad news is that, particularly since people are quite bad at evaluating their own photos, you are going to have to spend a lot of time taking and evaluating pictures.

I personally like PhotoFeeler, which has both free and paid versions. As a calibration point: I have evaluated 65 photos of myself on PF. I would be surprised if it was the right decision for anyone to evaluate less than 20.

Spend money

For most people, their romantic partner(s) are one of the biggest influences on their welfare. If you've made it this far into this article, you are probably one of those people.

I claim that this means that dating should be high on your list of priorities of things to spend money on. Paying to eat out or see a movie is probably a less cost-effective way to make yourself happy than spending money on dating.

Some ways of spending money:

  • Purchase premium versions of dating apps.
    • The products called “Boost” in Tinder and “Spotlight” in Bumble generally seem worth paying for, in my experience. (Note: Bumble has a different product that confusingly is also called Boost, which is less important.)
  • Hire a professional photographer.
  • Hire a professional makeup artist.
  • Hire someone to retouch your photos
  • Buy better clothes or hire a stylist
  • Get cosmetic surgery

Other advice

  • Location is key. Consider the gender ratio of where you live. Tinder allows you to pretend you are in a different location – try moving your profile to different places (New York City has one of the highest female:male ratios in the US) and see how that affects the number of matches you receive.
  • Women are consistently more likely than men to prefer longer-term relationships. If you are looking for a long-term relationship, be sure to signal that clearly in your profile. Certain apps (e.g. Hinge) are oriented towards longer-term relationships, whereas others (e.g. Tinder) are oriented towards shorter-term ones.
  • Similarly, men consistently prefer dating younger women. If you are attracted to older women, indicate that on your profile, or use apps like eHarmony which have older demographics.

Next Steps

Online dating relationships generally progress through the following milestones:

  1. Getting them to swipe right on you
  2. Getting a response to your first message
  3. Having an online conversation of 4+ messages
  4. First date
  5. Second date

After the second date, there are a variety of different paths relationships take, based on what the people involved want.

This article was entirely about the first milestone of getting them to swipe right on you, but there is a lot to say about later stages. Depending on how much interest there is, I may go into more details on these later steps. In particular, there is a lot of “first date” advice, but relatively little about steps 2 and 3.

Bibliography

Note: as mentioned above, this bibliography is not very well done. It has some duplicates and misformatted citations.

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What kind of results did you see when you implemented these suggestions?

The comparison is kind of dubious because I moved cities, but my first six boosts (the number of boosts I did before I moved, when I less understood what I was doing) averaged 7.17 likes, and my most recent six averaged 13.6 (p = 0.02 using an unpaired t-test).

So I guess it doubled my number of likes, if you take the numbers at face value, but you probably shouldn't. 

(I moved to a city that had a worse gender ratio but was larger; I'm not sure how those factors shake out, but would guess that at least some of the improvement was due to the city rather than my bio being better.)

This is great, thank you! Can I encourage you to put it in the body of the post, maybe right at the beginning? Even though they can't be taken at face value I think it's really helpful to give an idea of why you believe in your advice.

This post makes a general assumption that the point of a dating profile is about signaling qualities. I have heard it argued previously that the emotional experience of reading the profile is more central for the decision about whether or not a women get interested in swipping to match. 

Can you give an example of how the emotional experience would be separated from signaling qualities? E.g. I think having a funny profile is good, but that's pretty tied up in signaling a sense of humor.

Chosing images for displaying emotions is quite different then chosing them for displaying things in the background. Having photos that show different emotions instead of having every photo display you with the same emotions can increase emotional impact.

Generally, the goal of "stand out and produce an emotional response" is very different then "signal that you are at least average in many different domains".

To try to make your claim precise: given two profiles:

  1. Ugly guy in a dilapidated frat house with stains all over his clothes but making a lot of interesting expressions
  2. Basic generic guy smiling in standard locations

I predict the second one to do better.

Maybe you are saying that, in addition to being average in the domains I list, you should also make interesting facial expressions? That doesn't seem crazy to me, though I don't know a lot of evidence about it either way.

What do you think about the claim that everybody is setting everybody up for disappointment by all of this optimization? Not only in the profile but also in the dating process.  Over time, the effort is inevitably lowered, leading to claims from both sides that they were cheated. Or does everybody price that in with growing experience? What do you think about this dynamic?

"Everybody" is a very strong claim, since there needs to only be one person who didn't find it disappointing for the claim to be false. I am that person. I started off barely getting any matches, but after putting in effort in my photography, style, conversation and flirting I now have a happy casual dating lifestyle. I recommend other people to do the same.

Well, it is not the "every element of the set" everybody. 

Thank you for your feedback.

I agree that dating is a skill that improves with practice either way.

casual dating lifestyle

That sounds like it is more a lifestyle than a way to find a partner once, like a mutually shared understanding that dating is a domain like the job or vacation where one behaves differently.  

I actually don't think these things are that unsustainable. Even if you don't know anything about fashion now, if you spend a couple hours watching YouTube videos to learn what makes clothes fit well, I genuinely think you could spend the rest of your life only buying shirts where the shoulder seam is at your shoulder etc.

I agree though that portraying yourself as a vastly different person than you actually are is dangerous.

Have you read https://www.gwern.net/docs/psychology/okcupid/themathematicsofbeauty.html

 

This blog post by the old okcupid team (before they were bought by matchgroup) seems to be pretty strongly advocating for playing up the unique ways you are attractive, and not trying to play up all the ways you are average possibly to the detriment of your elo.

I certainly have found this to be a top tier resource when thinking about dating app meta and was somewhat surprised to not see it referenced.

Thank you, I am familiar with that post. Their explanation is:

Suppose you're a man who's really into someone. If you suspect other men are uninterested, it means less competition. You therefore have an added incentive to send a message. You might start thinking: maybe she's lonely. . . maybe she's just waiting to find a guy who appreciates her. . . at least I won't get lost in the crowd. . . maybe these small thoughts, plus the fact that you really think she's hot, prod you to action. You send her the perfectly crafted opening message.

On Tinder/bumble/etc. it's just as costly to swipe left as it is to swipe right. I don't think people are as likely to factor in likelihood of success when swiping as they are when deciding to invest the time to send a message. (One exception is super likes, but I'm skeptical that one should optimize their profile for super likes.)

Also, to the extent that one thinks this theory is valid, I don't think the resulting advice is to "play up unique ways you are attractive" – instead, it's to signal in your profile that you are attracted to people who are conventionally unattractive (e.g. "thicc thighs save lives") and still be conventionally attractive yourself. 

Overall, I think that this is a good primer and useful for both beginners and more advanced users of dating apps alike. I am particularly interested by the T-shape suggestion for things to signal, and the practicality focus here. I consider myself decently proficient with dating apps but have rarely spent a lot of effort on aesthetics, for example, and will attempt to put more thought into this.

 

A few questions / suggestions: 

  • I think some of your "advanced user" advice could be a bit more helpful: 
    • I feel like I am an "always upbeat and positive" person, but I have no idea what to do with                "If you are the sort of person who is always upbeat and positive, try to signal this through your expression, posture, and clothes."
    • My hunch says that signaling that you host social gatherings / plan parties is not much more beneficial than signaling that you attend them. If there is literature that suggests otherwise, I'm very interested in hearing about how and why.
  • Alongside the previous hunch, I'd guess that tact (or perhaps whatever the opposite of desperation is? confidence? nonchalance? ) probably also has an effect on female evaluations of male profiles - perhaps this is through a perceived difference in social ability? 
    • For example, I think explicitly saying that you host parties (even via snapchat screenshots) is hard to do in a way that doesn't make you seem like you're trying a bit too hard. 
    • I am also a bit worried in general that males without a decent grasp on social nuance might be a bit too transparent in signaling things like wealth or physical attractiveness, resulting in them seeming desperate / less desirable

Overall, very informative post and I will be reading Mate to get a bit more info on all of this, and looking forward to post 2 or 3. Willing to help out if there's anything I can do. 

Thanks!

I have no idea what to do with                "If you are the sort of person who is always upbeat and positive, try to signal this through your expression, posture, and clothes."

That's fair. When I think of upbeat expression, posture, and clothes, I think of things like:

  1. Wacky expressions
  2. Silly costumes, often with friends
  3. Huge grins
  4. Arms and legs out, taking up lots of space

My hunch says that signaling that you host social gatherings / plan parties is not much more beneficial than signaling that you attend them. If there is literature that suggests otherwise, I'm very interested in hearing about how and why.


My intuition is just that you need more social capital to host a party of N people than to attend a party of N people. It's easier to get an invite to a party than it is to convince people to attend your party, and also you only need to know one person to get a party invite whereas you need to (perhaps indirectly) know N people to organize a party of N people.

I'd guess that tact (or perhaps whatever the opposite of desperation is? confidence? nonchalance? ) probably also has an effect on female evaluations of male profiles - perhaps this is through a perceived difference in social ability? 

I agree that tact is a key difficulty. I warned against including shirtless pictures largely for this reason; I think it's a fair point that wealth and social capital can also be displayed in a tactless way.

your profile will not be shown as frequently to other women, even those who might be attracted to your idiosyncrasies. (Tinder implements this through assigning each user Elo rating which goes up every time someone swipes right on them and down every time someone swipes left. Profiles with lower ratings are shown less frequently.)

This was true for the past for Tinder, but Tinder itself claims that it stopped doing the Elo rating thing. If you think they still do that, on what basis do you hold that belief?

I saw a talk from one of their engineers which implied that their "deep learning" algorithm was more marketing than a core redesign.

I also agree with Lincoln that, regardless of whether there is literally a field in their database called "elo", more attractive profiles are shown more frequently. One easy example of this is the "top picks" feature, which has one section for people with similar interests to you, but another is just people who are generically hot.

Regardless of the precise mechanism, Tinder almost certainly shows more attractive people more often. If it didn't, it would have a retention problem because there are lots of people who swipe tinder to fantasize about matching with hot people, and they wouldn't get enough hot people to keep them going. Most likely, Tinder has determined a precise ratio of "hot people" and "people in your league" to show you, in order to keep you swiping.

Given the existence of the incentive and likelihood that Tinder et al. would follow such an incentive, it makes sense to try to have your profile be more generally attractive so you get shown to more people.

Tinder can do a lot of machine learning to pick up on factors that make you more attractive to certain people and less attractive to others.

There are some girls who like to date nerds and other's for whom it's a negative. If you do signal that you are a nerd Tinder can use that to show you to the kind of girls who like nerds. 

There's an old OkCupid trends article that argues that doing things that increase your attractiveness with some people and decrease it with others can be benefitial even if it decreases your average attractiveness.

They can do that, but there's no strong reason to believe that they did do that.

They can do that, but there's no strong reason to believe that they did do that.

The fact that they write articles about how they are not using ELO anymore is a strong reason to believe that they don't and do something more complex. 

This is a great post. I fully endorse its advice.

FWIW, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to optimize online dating, and run a business called RelationshipHero.com which offers coaching on this topic (among other topics)

While romantic preferences are idiosyncratic, certain attributes are widely considered attractive by heterosexual women... They are: aesthetics, mental health, social capital, wealth, physical attractiveness, and niceness.

I'm curious what a similar list would look like for heterosexual men.

There is some evidence that women are risk-averse rather than expectation maximizing, i.e. it's more important to indicate that you are at least acceptable on each of these dimensions than it is to indicate that you are exceptional on one of them.

This is not what is usually called "risk averse". Risk aversity is about preferences between different "lotteries", not about tradeoffs between situations with no uncertainty.

They are: aesthetics, mental health, social capital, wealth, physical attractiveness, and niceness.

So if I'm below average on probably all of these (and extremely below average on at least mental health and social capital), is the right thing to do just to give up on dating for the foreseeable future?

While it's important to bear in mind the possibility that you're not as below average as you think, I don't know your case so I will assume you're correct in your assessment.

Perhaps give up on online dating. "Offline" dating is significantly more forgiving than online.

Here is a table of who women message on a dating app, organized by attractiveness quintile:

From Kreager, Derek A.; Cavanagh, Shannon E.; Yen, John; Yu, Mo (2014). “Where Have All the Good Men Gone?” Gendered Interactions in Online Dating. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(2), 387–410. doi:10.1111/jomf.12072 

Men in the bottom quintile clearly get substantially fewer messages, but they don't get zero messages. 3% of messages from top quintile women go to bottom quintile men!
 

I don't feel qualified to give advice about your personal life though. Whether or how you should be dating depends on a bunch of factors like what your goals are, how costly it is for you to date, etc.

Note that a certain percentage of 'female senders' on dating apps have a financial motive.  Some are offering various forms of sex work (from nude photos to forms of prostitution), and some are part of an organized scam.  (pretending to be an attractive female sender who is just a little short of money and needs gift card number in order to 'meet' the recipient). 

A quick eyeball analysis of the data you have shows 1-2% of the senders are likely doing this.  Look how for medium-high and medium the percentages go down.  This is because a scammer is not going to copy a profile photo that isn't top quintile.   

Look how for medium-high and medium the percentages go down.

I'm not sure I understand what you're pointing at here. Can you explain more? Every category of female sender is monotonically less likely to send messages to less attractive males, as you would expect, without any consideration of spam.

Upper right, 0.03 messages from high->low male receivers.  

One row down, 0.02 messages from medium-high->low male receivers.

To me I mentally see this as 0.01 to 0.03 of these messages are motivated by something other than attractivness, aka financial.  It could be just noise.

Oh yeah, I agree that's a bit weird but I would guess it's just noise.

Also, if some fraction of males are presenting an extreme profile (a-la Jacob of putanumonit) they could be rated low attractiveness "on average" while still getting messages from the tiny fractional percent of females of each attractiveness band who are interested in that unique profile.

[+][comment deleted]1mo 2