What's Race Got To Do With Online Dating?

A woman typing on her laptop with a yellow coffee mug beside herThere are many advantages and disadvantages to online dating. Where does race fit in that spectrum?

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Apparently, race still matters online. People still self-segregate as much as they do in face-to-face interactions; most, that is, still reach out to members of their own racial background. But people are more likely to reciprocate a cross-race overture than previous research would lead to us to expect. And — once they have replied to a suitor from a different race — people are then themselves more likely to cross racial lines and initiate interracial contact in the future.

A study of romantic social networks considered only heterosexual interactions, for apples-to-apples comparison with the majority of previous findings, and only those individuals, for the sake of simplicity, who self-identify with one and only one of the top five most populous of OkCupid’s racial categories: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino and Indian (South Asian).

Only the first message sent and the first reply were analyzed. All messages were stripped of content. Only data on the sender, receiver and timestamp of the message were available.

The tendency to initiate contact within one’s own race, the study observes, is strongest among Asians and Indians and weakest among whites. And the biggest “reversals” are observed among groups that display the greatest tendency towards in-group bias, and also when a person is being contacted by someone from a different racial background for the first time.

Based on a lifetime of experiences in a racist and racially segregated society, people anticipate discrimination on the part of a potential recipient and are largely unwilling to reach out in the first place. But if a person of another race expresses interest in them first, their assumptions are falsified — and they are more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future.

The effect is short-lived, however: People go back to habitual patterns in about a week.

Why? The new-found optimism is quickly overwhelmed by the status quo, by the normal state of affairs. Racial bias in assortative mating is a robust and ubiquitous social phenomenon, and one that is difficult to surmount even with small steps in the right direction. We still have a long way to go.

Online dating is providing new insights into the timeless social process of finding a romantic partner.

Not only does dating on the internet have more and more social impact, he said — the most rigorous estimates suggest that nowadays over 20 percent of heterosexual and nearly 70 percent of same-sex relationships begin online — but it is also a novel and rich source of data. Previous work on mate selection has often been based on marriage records, which don’t contain any information about a romance’s early days, or on self-report surveys, when people are more likely to present themselves in the best, least-prejudiced light.

These “digital footprints” of online interactions can give us a glimpse of interpersonal dynamics at the very start of romantic relationships. We can begin to change our ingrained patterns of choosing partners -because they are often based on false premises.

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