[O]nline dating systems have begun to influence not only individual lives but also cultural notions of love and attraction… But despite the incredible number of people using these services, we know little about how users perceive each other… It’s possible, too, that different subpopulations of users within the site are seeking entirely different things and using different evaluative techniques. (Fiore, 2007)
Research on people’s dating preferences is not new. Previous studies have explored differences in preferences with regard to an ideal partner between men and women (see Rajecki, Bledsoe & Rasmussen, 1991), reasons for placing personal ads (see Jason, Moritsugu, & De Palma, 1992), evidence of evolutionary influences in dating preferences (see Symons, 1979; Sadalla, Kenrick, & Venshure, 1987), motivations for interracial dating (see Yancey & Yancey, 1998), effects of forewarnings on evaluation of target profiles (see Leon, Rotunda, Sutton, & Schlossman, 2002), applications of the marketing exchange theory to lonely hearts ads (see Hirschman, 1977), and crosscultural differences in desired mate attributes (see Buss, 1989; Parekh & Beresin, 2001; Ye, 2006).
The two research streams of male-female differences in partner expectations and applying evolutionary perspective to explain these differences are closely related. Several studies on personal ads and dating behavior have found that behaviors of men and women in the dating context are consistent with traditional sex-role stereotypes (Nevid 1984; Urberg, 1979; Davis, 1990). For instance, Davis (1990) looked at 328 personal advertisements sampled from a major Canadian newspaper. His findings suggest that the men were more likely to desire a particular physical attribute than women, and the women were more likely to stipulate that their companion be employed, possess intelligence, have a profession, and be financially well-off. In their study of 800 “lonely hearts” advertisements, Harrison and Saeed (1977) concluded that women were more likely than men to advertise their attractiveness, seek financial security, and look for someone older than them. Men, more than women, were in search of attractiveness and youth, and in return offered financial security and professed their interest in marriage.
Cosmides and Tooby (1987) and Buss (1987) have been largely credited for spearheading the evolutionary psychology paradigm in mate selection. Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow (1992, p. 3) define evolutionary psychology as “simply psychology that is informed by the additional knowledge that evolutionary biology has to offer, in the expectation that understanding the process that designed the human mind will advance the discovery of its architecture.” The evolutionary perspective suggests that the ideal mate for a male is a female possessing high reproductive capacity, which mostly equates with a young female (Thornhill & Thornhill, 1983; Buss, 1987). Males, therefore, find females with relatively youthful facial characteristics attractive (Symons, 1979). For a female, the ideal male is someone who will successfully compete for resources and can provide for their offspring (Sadalla, Kenrick, & Venshure, 1987). Attributes such as robust health, clear skin, and strong muscles in a male are likely to be more attractive to females than average health, skin, and muscles (Alley & Cunningham, 1991). Consistent with the evolutionary perspective, men place more emphasis on physical attractiveness when choosing partners for sex or marriage, and women place relatively more emphasis on socioeconomic status, earnings potential, and college education in choosing their mates (Barscheid & Walster, 1974; Townsend &Wasserman, 1997).
Leon et al. (2003) suggest that as the computer age has progressed, people’s lives have become increasingly busy and the ability to meet potential mates is reduced. Personal ad dating, they write, is ubiquitous because it fulfills a social need and a niche. In their study of individuals who had placed newspaper personal ads, Jason, Moritsugu, and DePalma (1992) concluded that those placing ads were well educated and financially successful. Their reasons for seeking the newspaper as a channel for mate seeking were high mobility and lack of access to traditional modes of meeting others (i. e., friends, family, and work). Around 85% said they were new to the area, 69% reported difficulty in meeting people through social activities, 61% felt uncomfortable in meeting people in singles bars, and 59% reported lack of familial contacts for introduction to potential mates. In conclusion, the authors state that the self-advertisers either did not have other ways to explore potential relationships, or that they may have tired of the more conventional channels and means of introduction.