Online Dating Study Reveals How Far People Are Willing to Go to Find Love

"Perhaps there is a psychological barrier there?"

Bruch/Newman Sociological Science

The wide pool of candidates accessible during online dating can feel overwhelmingly large. With the ability to message candidates from sea to shining sea, the perfect person may be just a DM away — even if that person lives in the next state or county. But analysis published Tuesday in Sociological Science reveals that even if that ultra-compatible human is out there, there’s a limit to how far we will go for love.

In this paper, University of Michigan researchers Mark Newman, Ph.D., a professor of information science, and Elizabeth Bruch, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology, report that the most powerful driver of online romance is still distance when you look at national-level data.

When Newman analyzed 15 million online dating DMs, he found that the country self-organized itself into 19 regions where people tend to pursue online relationships with one another. If you were to redraw the map of the United Sates according to how far people are willing to go to consider striking up a relationship online, you would get this map.

The 19 subregions of online dating. 


“It was a little surprising, at least to me, how perfectly the geographic regions follow accepted divisions of the country,” Newman tells Inverse. “For instance, in many cases they follow state boundaries.”

How Far Is Too Far?

Newman’s 19 regions were generated by an algorithm that analyzes reciprocated messages on a “popular” but unnamed online dating site. Reciprocated messages, as opposed to unanswered DMs, are intended to signal actual romantic interest, the authors explain. Potential candidates outside these regions, for most of the daters in their sample, just seemed too far away to pursue connections with.

"Perhaps there is a psychological barrier there?"

Most of the dating subregions align well with the traditional American sense of regional pride. For instance, the New England region includes Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and the Pacific Northwest region covers Oregon, Washington, and parts of Idaho and Montana.

But it’s not an exact match by region or state. Pennsylvania is split right down the middle, with half of daters preferring to converse with partners on the east coast, and others leaning toward the midwest.

Many of the subregions are wider than you might imagine. For instance, online daters in central regions of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma all seem perfectly happy to respond to messages in neighboring states — a distance that encompasses hundreds of miles total. But in other regions, people are a bit pickier. In some cases, Newman noticed that daters limited their choices largely by state.

Daters in Northern California tend to reciprocate to in-state messages rather that give someone from nearby Oregon a shot. Texans, too, tend to prefer in-state dating. They are far more likely to reply to another Texan — even one who lives miles away — than someone just across the state border in Oklahoma.

There are thousands of potential partners on dating sites, but geography and age still largely govern who we strike up relationships with.

Unsplash / rawpixel

“There’s no practical reason why they should do this. If you live near a state boundary, it’s quite possible that there are plenty of potential dating partners within easy travel distance in the next state over,” says Newman. “But apparently there is little such inter-state dating going on.”

Newman and Bruch add that geography-based dating makes sense, especially since the preliminary goal of dating sites is to plan a face-to-face meetup. To that end, a dater in New York is more likely to respond to a message from someone nearby and ignore someone from California. But even on a local level, the extreme examples seen in Texas, for instance, hint at a possible psychological barrier to dating across state lines.

“Perhaps there is a psychological barrier there?” He asks. “Perhaps dating someone who lives in a different state feels like going too far, even if they are only a mile down the road?”

Dating in the Same City

But as strange as the lack of inter-state dating is, Newman and Bruch’s paper is also dedicated to illuminating how people choose potential partners when distance is no object. By using the online dating messages from people in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle, he found that people also self-organize within cities. Specifically into four age-related submarkets.

These groups are roughly grouped by decade. People in their early 20s made up the first group, people in their late 20s made up the second group, the third group was populated by people in their late 30s, and the fourth was made up of people 40 and older.

Newman and his co-authors note that people do try to break out of these age group brackets, with 43 percent messaging people in a submarket outside of their own. But they’re far less likely to get a reply. Across the four cities, 75 percent of reciprocal reactions happened within those age groups.

Of course, there are factors other than age. Newman’s earlier work involving algorithms, published in August 2018, shows that people are more likely to message someone who is more attractive than themselves. Other research suggests that people tend to be more open to approaching new partners due to online dating. A paper released in 2017 posited that interracial marriages have increased since 2004, when online dating became prominent. Still, online dating has a long way to go to overcome persistent, societal bias.

Newman and Bruch’s most recent work shows that, despite these new tools available to us, we’re still lured towards the partners of similar age and location.

Those factors may not be a deep way of screening partners, considering that dating apps can connect you with partners who smell nice or have a compatible personality, but they are practical ones.

We study the structure of heterosexual dating markets in the United States through an analysis of the interactions of several million users of a large on- line dating web site, applying recently developed network analysis methods to the pattern of messages exchanged among users. Our analysis shows that the strongest driver of romantic interaction at the national level is simple geographic proximity, but at the local level other demographic factors come into play. We find that dating markets in each city are partitioned into submarkets along lines of age and ethnicity. Sex ratio varies widely between submarkets, with younger submarkets having more men and fewer women than older ones. There is also a noticeable tendency for minorities, especially women, to be younger than the average in older submarkets, and our analysis reveals how this kind of racial stratification arises through the messaging decisions of both men and women. Our study illustrates how network techniques applied to online interactions can reveal the aggregate effects of individual behavior on social structure.
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