Making the First Move: Gender and Initiating Contact on Dating Sites

Nikhil is investigating flirting and communication on online dating sites as part of Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class. See a more detailed overview of this assignment.

For my research project, I am investigating flirting between users of online dating sites. Specifically, I have decided to focus on gender differences in the initiation of contact. Several studies have found that men are significantly more likely than women to initiate contact on dating sites. And there are indications that this gender difference is more pronounced in online relationships than in offline dating. For instance, a 2004 study by Monica Whitty confirmed that while men made first contact more often than women online, both genders were equally likely to initiate flirting offline. Therefore, the goal of my research project is to determine what qualities of dating sites create this gender imbalance. In other words, how do dating sites encourage male initiation and/or discourage female initiation?

The article “Matching and Sorting in Online Dating” by Gunter Hitsch, Ali Hortascu, and Dan Ariely provides an interesting perspective on this question. In the study, the authors developed two models to describe how users determine whether to contact another person on a dating site. One model takes into account only the attraction between two users. The other builds on this first model by including the “costs” of initiating contact, such as the effort put into writing a message or the pain of receiving a rejection. To illustrate these two different models, the authors use the example of an unattractive man deciding whether to contact an attractive woman. In the first model, the man would contact the woman because of the attraction; but in the second model, the man may not initiate contact out of fear of being rejected. The authors then applied these models to a data set of information from over 5,000 dating site users. After statistical analysis, they found that the two models closely match each other given the user data. Put another way, the “costs” of initiating had little impact on individuals’ decisions to contact another user. This observation points to the idea that dating sites provide a less risky environment for flirting and romantic conversations. If there are fewer “costs” when initiating aconversation online rather than offline, then men might be more willing to start conversations online.

Of course, I need to supplement this idea with more research. I would have to describe how this effect encourages only males and not females to make contact, for example. But this article suggests that the gender differences in initiation may be due to the perceived “safety” of online dating.

-Nikhil Raghuram, Stanford University

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Networked Rhetoric: Section 2, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Making the First Move: Gender and Initiating Contact on Dating Sites

  1. Sara says:

    Based on your post, it seems like the research you have done has served to enforce the idea that men are more likely to initiate contact than women. What you still need is to determine some causality, or to find an explanation for why this is the case. I think so far it sounds like you have done a thorough job finding support for the phenomenon you are interested in, but still need to explore the “why?”

    Great job and looking forward to hearing how your research progresses!

  2. Paolo Gabriel says:

    First of all, I had no idea that there was such an imbalance between gender initiation on online dating sites! That was very interesting to know. Is the reason behind this also tied to the difference in mentality? I would think guys go to these sites looking for women and ladies go to this site knowing that there are guys looking, which is why even with the anonymity, women are less likely to initiate.

    Speaking of which, this comes back to how people’s behaviors can change with web anonymity. Awesome.

  3. cedawson says:

    Hey Nikhil, great post. I always enjoy reading your thoughts about your research. Have you come up with a plan to conduct your research to support this argument yet? You may want to set up multiple “fake” profiles on different dating sites. You could have 1 “aggressive” male profile and 1 “aggressive” female one (where aggressive here means they contact other users) and one “passive” male profile and one “passive” female profile (meaning they don’t contact other users, but wait to be contacted instead). You could record the number of messages and responses each profile gets and see if it supports the data that there is a reduced cost of flirting online (I would expect the aggressive male to get the most messages and passive male to get the least according to the research). It would be interesting to see what happens.

  4. Jun Yang says:

    Good first step into finding out why online dating may encourage male initiation but as you said, this encouragement works for both sexes, so the more critical component is likely the female discouragement. One thing to note is whether there is a difference between initiating contact and initiating flirting, as was described in your first paragraph. If they are significantly different, you may have to retool your approach or argument a bit.

    Have you started on your personal first hand research yet? That should be fun.

  5. What struck me as most interesting about this article analysis was both the amount of data used in the described models, and the very concrete conclusion that resulted. This provides very strong data in the context of a qualitative model that works to give background to your argument. However, I cannot help but wonder how these models were used. Was there very specific criteria that fit each encounter into one of the models? A quick overview of how the models worked might be beneficial in the final project.
    These models, given their concrete findings, might be useful to harness yourself. If you combine these, with any sort of psychological data that keys you into men’s more willing behavior to act first, you might be able to give a picture of an online dater in a more holistic fashion. In answering the questions your project has posed, I feel like this holistic view of an average online dater will be the best possible outcome. However, try to avoid any stereotyping in your argument.

  6. This is a really fascinating concept that I feel could have a lot of implications into other aspects of your project as well. The notion of “costs” can be applied to the entirety of online dating, perhaps. Do people say/do things online that they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing online? How does this translate once the online daters meet up?
    I was totally unaware of this gender difference. Statistical information along with your personal knowledge from having created a profile will result in an extremely fascinating project.

  7. Melissa Sussmann says:

    I think creating fake profiles is a great way to experiment with this topic…just make sure you don’t put your real info online. You might get a creeper. >.> <.< Seriously though, for my topic, I put myself on the internet to experiment with a thought about my own topic that made me curious. I think it is the most fascinating part of my project so far. It can be really rewarding to try something new like that.

  8. tmetoxen says:

    Hey Nikhil,

    This source seems like it will be valuable as you continue with your research. It’s good to see that you are finding research to back up the claims about men being the initiators in an online environment, but one thing I didn’t see in this post is the “why”. It would be really nice to see if you could find out why the claim is true. Although I don’t believe making profiles is the best way to find out, it could be helpful in your understanding of the territory. I’m sure there is some research out there that looks into the why. Keep looking!


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