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Dating and Desirability

A study on dating preferences and desirability was recently conducted over a period of 2 years, and included observations of more than 400 daters among Columbia University’s various graduate and professional schools. The study involved “speed dating”, with each couple rating their “date” at the end of each 4 minute encounter. The results were interesting in many respects.

Among the findings citied by Ray Fisman ( were:




  1. Men put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner’s beauty, when choosing, than women did.
  2. Women got more dates when they won high marks for looks from research assistants, who were hired for the much sought-after position of hanging out in a bar to rate the dater’s level of attractiveness on a scale of one to ten.
  3. Intelligence ratings were more than twice as important in predicting women’s choices as men’s. Men preferred women whom they rated as smarter—but only up to a point. In a survey performed before the speed dating began, participants rated their own intelligence levels, and results showed that men avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves.
  4. Similarly, when observing preferences related to career ambition, a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.
  5. Women of all the races studied revealed a strong preference for men of their own race: White women were more likely to choose white men; black women preferred black men; East Asian women preferred East Asian men; Hispanic women preferred Hispanic men.
  6. Men in this study did not exhibit discrimination based on race with regard to dating. A woman’s race had no effect on the men’s choices.


A number of elements about this study and its findings are of interest to me:

First of all, the population studied here is “daters among Columbia University’s various graduate and professional schools.” I think it’s likely that this skews the findings, particularly in the areas related to racial preference, for two reasons: 1) I believe that Columbia students are a more generally liberal group than a random sample of the population of the United States. I have no evidence of this, but I have a pretty high level of confidence that it’s true. 2) This segment of the population is generally younger than the rest of the adult US population which, again, I believe would skew the results because younger people tend to be more liberal and more color-blind (in a racial sense) that the general population of older generations (which reflects social progress, in my view.)

Secondly, I think we need to be careful about making generalizations from these findings. For example, in a very thorough study by anthropologist Helen Fisher, published a few years back in book form and entitled “Why We Love”, it was demonstrated that women as well as men are attracted to specific physical body characteristics. It’s impossible to prove that that the specific characteristics represent “beauty”, simply because beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. However, there are certain physical characteristics that are more appealing to the general population than others, speaking in terms of physical characteristics. If my memory serves me correctly, Fisher’s work demonstrated that clear physiological changes occur in the chemistry of the brain of the observer when presented with those characteristics. Long legs were, as I recall, one of those characteristics. Therefore, I am not at all surprised that “Women got more dates when they won high marks for looks from research assistants.” Certainly, widely publicized beauty pageants have focused on these types of physical characteristics consistently for many decades. So while I understand that men are probably more inclined to rely principally on physical beauty, that is certainly not an exclusively male practice.

Thirdly, I find it interesting that men appear to be too intimidated by superior intelligence, ambition, and earning power to pursue women that possess those characteristics – when they possess them in greater quantities than the men themselves. I have long held that most men end up marrying women who are smarter than they are. But of course, there are many dimensions of intelligence, and many ways to measure it. My admittedly cynical view is that whichever spouse convinces the other spouse to be the primary breadwinner is probably the smarter of the two.


What do you think?

3 Responses to “Dating and Desirability”

  1. Lloyd Duncan says:

    I tend to agree with you that the sampling of young highly educated (elitist,by my word choice) people skewed the results! Although not directly related, I saw a television program where ten young women were allowed to quickly walk around & pair up with ten young men. The results appeared to show that the couples were pretty much equally paired up by a true “beauty” standpoint. The women were removed & the same men had tags placed on their shirts that indicated some of the less attractive men had prestigous jobs & earned a lot of money, while some of the more attractive men were given tags that indicated they had menial jobs with lower earnings. A new group of girls were brought in & amazingly the definition of “beautiful” men had changed substantually!! This time many of the women,including some of the very cute ones, found the more monied but less attractive men better looking than the the more attractive but less monied ones!! Duke University’s James Moody did a study of 90,000 teens at 112 different schools & found that the more racially diverse the school,the more the kids self-segerated by race & ethnicity, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down.

    • Wow! Excellent comment! Wish I had seen the TV program you described here. I will have to think a bit about the Duke University study – I need to look that one up. Very interesting stuff!

  2. Marie Luft says:

    A study of this type is too simplistic. Why would anyone care about the dating characteristics of this sample of the population?

    However, #1, Nothing new in learning that men prefer beautiful women; #2, Same thing- were the research assistants men or women ?: #3, I guess that finding does not surprise me either … powerful men seem to like women whom are at least “perceived” as not being as intelligent as they are; whereas, some women are smart enough to recognize the “potential” of a guy and lucky enough for the potential to pan out; #4, result is, again, from the power viewpoint of a man; Being a woman myself (tho certainly not meeting the criteria of this study) the results for #5 and #6 are not surprising either.

    My reasons for stating that this is too simplistic is that they have no information on the background or upbringing of the subjects in the study. I, personally, know of white families who have adopted black children. The black children who grew up in a white family then married white partners … they are more comfortable with white people than black. I’m sure there would be lots of variables such as that that would make these “studies” more worthwhile…. just my opinion.

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