Continuing along on their guided tour of Data I Wish I Had Access To, the OKCupid folks have posted another set of interesting figures on their blog. This time, they make the case for dating older women, suggesting that men might get more bang for their buck (in a literal sense, I suppose) by trying to contact women their age or older, rather than trying to hit on the young ‘uns. Men, it turns out, are creepy. Here’s how creepy:
Actually, that’s not so creepy. All it says is that men say they prefer to date younger women. That’s not going to shock anyone. This one is creepier:
The reason it’s creepy is that it basically says that, irrespective of what age ranges men say they find acceptable in a potential match, they’re actually all indiscriminately messaging 18-year old women. So basically, if you’re a woman on OKCupid who’s searching for that one special, non-creepy guy, be warned: they don’t exist. They’re pretty much all going to be eying 18-year olds for the rest of their lives. (To be fair, women also show a tendency to contact men below their lowest reported acceptable age. But it’s a much weaker effect; 40-year old women only occasionally try to hit on 24-year old guys, and tend to stay the hell away from the not-yet-of-drinking-age male population.)
Anyway, using this type of data, the OKCupid folks then generate this figure:
…which also will probably surprise no one, as it basically says women are most desirable when they’re young, and men when they’re (somewhat) older. But what the OKCupid folks then suggest is that it would be to men’s great advantage to broaden their horizons, because older women (which, in their range-restricted population, basically means anything over 30) self-report being much more interested in having sex more often, having casual sex, and using protection. I won’t bother hotlinking to all of those images, but here’s where they’re ultimately going with this:
I’m not going to comment on the appropriateness of trying to nudge one’s male userbase in the direction of more readily available casual sex (though I suspect they don’t need much nudging anyway). What I do wonder is to what extent these results reflect selection effects rather than a genuine age difference. The OKCupid folks suggest that women’s sexual interest increases as they age, which seems plausible given the conventional wisdom that women peak sexually in their 30s. But the effects in this case look pretty huge (unless the color scheme is misleading, which it might be; you’ll have to check out the post for the neat interactive flash animations), and it seems pretty plausible that much of the age effect could be driven by selection bias. Women with a more monogamous orientation are probably much more likely to be in committed, stable relationships by the time they turn 30 or 35, and probably aren’t scanning OKCupid for potential mates. Women who are in their 30s and 40s and still using online dating services are probably those who weren’t as interested in monogamous relationships to begin with. (Of course, the same is probably true of older men. Except that since men of all ages appear to be pretty interested in casual sex, there’s unlikely to be an obvious age differential.)
The other thing I’m not clear on is whether these analyses control for the fact that the userbase is heavily skewed toward younger users:
The people behind OKCupid are all mathematicians by training, so I’d be surprised if they hadn’t taken the underlying age distribution into consideration. But they don’t say anything about it in their post. The worry is that, if the base rate of different age groups isn’t taken into consideration, the heat map displayed above could be quite misleading. Given that there are many, many more 25-year old women on OKCupid than 35-year old women, failing to normalize properly would almost invariably make it look like there’s a heavy skew for men to message relatively younger women, irrespective of the male sender’s age. By the same token, it’s not clear that it’d be good advice to tell men to seek out older women, given that there are many fewer older women in the pool to begin with. As a thought experiment, suppose that the entire OKCupid male population suddenly started messaging women 5 years older than them, and entirely ignored their usual younger targets. The hit rate wouldn’t go up; it would probably actually fall precipitously, since there wouldn’t be enough older women to keep all the younger men entertained (at least, I certainly hope there wouldn’t). No doubt there’s a stable equilibrium point somewhere, where men and women are each targeting exactly the right age range to maximize their respective chances. I’m just not sure that it’s in OKCupid’s proposed “zone of greatness” for the men.
It’s also a bit surprising that OKCupid didn’t break down the response rate to people of the opposite gender as a function of the sender and receiver’s age. They’ve done this in the past, and it seems like the most direct way of testing whether men are more likely to get lucky by messaging older or younger women. Without knowing whether older women are actually responding to younger men’s overtures, it’s kind of hard to say what it all means. Except that I’d still kill to have their data.