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Looking for love match? Try videos or speed dating, UT research says

University of Texas romance researchers Lucy Hunt and Paul Eastwick have some advice for people seeking a meaningful connection in the dating world: A photo is easy but not nearly as good as a video or even – gulp! – speed dating.

Hunt and Eastwick study evolutionary psychology – specifically, why people are attracted to one another and how that affects their choice of mates. They recently found that photographs – the key part of most dating services – tend to be heavily skewed by the preconceptions of the person viewing them. Speed dating does far more to create an authentic picture. The researchers also found, to their surprise, that even a short video of two people interacting is nearly as good as a face-to-face experience.

“I think this is important because a lot of people are looking for a unique connection,” Hunt said. “I’ve had a lot of friends frustrated because they go through so many dates looking for a real connection through services like Tinder and OK Cupid,” which are increasingly prominent in a society where people move often and rely on the Web as a way to find connections.

The findings, presented at a recent conference, expand on Eastwick’s and Hunt’s previous work, which is based on a notion that runs counter to the accepted wisdom in their field (and can even, they acknowledge, sound a tad naïve). They contend that people who aren’t particularly good-looking, wealthy, successful or charismatic have better odds of finding a meaningful romantic connection than generally believed.

The researchers place less emphasis than many of their peers on “mate value,” a theory that says a person’s dating success rests largely on how desirable that person is to the general population. It holds that long ago, some people had mutations that made them more desirable. More people thought they were attractive, which gave them more options and, ultimately, the best chance to find a desirable mate. Think of it is as the Brad Pitt effect.

Mate value does matter, particularly at first, the researchers say. But how a person rates potential mates can vary greatly from how society in general rates them – and the longer two people know each other, the more likely they are to rate each other differently than everyone else does. This can work against someone (attractive but selfish, for example) or in their favor (socially awkward but kind).

“This may seem obvious, but it could have more subtle implications for online dating,” Hunt said. “If it takes time to find out if you really like or don’t like someone else (and vice versa), how can you find a compatible partner over the computer?”

These kinds of questions prompted Hunt, a graduate student, to pursue a Ph.D. in the field, she said. In her own dating life, she noticed that the men didn’t share many similarities, each relationship felt fundamentally different, and she wasn’t sure what signs to look for.

“Social psychological research seemed like a great place to start,” she said. “It astounded me how little we know about attraction and dating.”

After examining relationships among people who already knew each other, Hunt and Eastwick decided to study what happens when people first meet.

When they were at Northwestern University — he earning his Ph.D., she as an undergrad — they had put together a speed-dating pool of 187 students, roughly split evenly between men and women. Those students also took photos, like those found on online dating sites. Recently, Eastwick and Hunt had students at other schools rate those photos. They also had students rate the attractiveness of the would-be romance seekers by watching video of them from a speed-dating session.

Video was important, Hunt said, because “we wanted something in between” the face-to-face interaction of speed dating and the impersonal nature of photo-based profiles.

After performing statistical analysis of the tendencies of those doing the rating and those being rated — the “math, math, math” part, as Eastwick put it — they found that much of what people were seeing in photos was what they wanted to see. Some people tended to give a disproportionate number of individuals a low rating, while others tended to find most everyone attractive, for example.

A photo “tells me more about the rater than the person being rated,” Eastwick said. The raters tended to have more variation in their reaction to videos and in-person interactions, implying those reactions are influenced much less by the baggage of the person doing the rating.

As first impressions go, video and face-to-face interactions tended to yield a more authentic assessment of the person being rated — and, ultimately, created circumstances with “a much higher likelihood of hitting it off,” Hunt said.

Eastwick said he suspects photos yield such different responses because human brains evolved to pick mates in a face-to-face situation. Photos only recently starting a play a prominent role.

“When you rely on these photos,” he said, “you might be tapping psychological processes that evolved for other purposes.”

So which is the best use of time: meeting a few people, or using that time to peruse far more online profiles? Eastwick said that question has yet to be answered definitively. But face-to-face interactions, and video that approximates them, seem likely to reduce the number of dates needed to find the right person.

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