Does Online Dating Reveal That We’re Racist? Ethnicity Still Matters to Most Site Users When Choosing a Love-Interest

Sarah Griffiths, Daily Mail (London), November 5, 2013

Race still matters when it comes to searching for a partner–at least online, according to a new study.

A sociologist has found that members of dating sites are most likely to contact individuals who share their own racial background, on dating websites.

Professor Kevin Lewis studied the interaction patterns of 126,134 users of dating website OkCupid.com in the U.S. over a  two-and-a-half month period.

The sociologist, from the University of California, San Diego, found the tendency to initiate contact with someone from a shared race, is strongest among Asians and Indians and weakest among whites, the study said.

Professor Lewis only took heterosexual interactions ‘for apples-to-apples comparison with the majority of previous findings’ into account and only for individuals who identified themselves as one of the website’s five most popular racial categories, including: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino and Indian (South Asian).

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he analysed the first message sent and the first reply–only looking at the data about the sender, receiver and time stamp of the message, rather than its content, which was stripped.

While he said white people were the most likely to consider relationships with people from other ethnic backgrounds, he said the biggest ‘reversals’ in preference, are observed among groups that display the greatest tendency towards in-group bias.

Professor Lewis’ study also found that a person who is contacted by someone from a different racial background for the first time is more likely to reply, which he explains using his theory about ‘pre-emptive discrimination’.

‘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,’ he said.

‘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.’

However, the assistant professor of sociology in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences, warns that the effect is short-lived as people go back to habitual patterns in around a week.

Explaining why, Professor Lewis said: ‘The new-found optimism is quickly overwhelmed by the status quo and 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.’

Earlier research into racial bias in assortative mating (or the non-random pairings of people with similar traits) had trouble disentangling how much was due to prejudice and how much to geography or meeting opportunities.

However, Professor Lewis said he was able to take these factors into account with his analysis.

‘Online dating is providing new insights into the timeless social process of finding a romantic partner,’ he added.

An estimated 20 per cent of heterosexual relationships and almost 70 per cent of same-sex relationships now begin online, providing a rich source of data for social scientists.

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.

While the study might make for depressing reading, Professor Lewis said it shows people are more likely to reciprocate a cross-race message than previous research would lead to scientists to expect.

Once an individual has replied to a suitor from a different race, they are more likely to cross racial lines and initiate interracial contact in the future.

Professor Lewis says internet dating is able to begin to change humans’ ingrained patterns of choosing partners because they are often based on false premises.

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