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Online Dating Coaches' User Evaluation Strategies

Authors:

Abstract

Users of online dating systems want to evaluate each other to predict who they will be attracted to in-person. Prior research into evaluation of online dating profiles has shown how users struggle to evaluate physical attractiveness and demographic traits because of deception. Yet we have little knowledge about successful user evaluation strategies, or evaluation of other traits known to influence attraction like personality. We addressed these gaps in knowledge through an interview study of professional online dating coaches (n=27) to extract their self-proclaimed successful user evaluation strategies for 3 categories of traits derived from attraction literature: physical appearance, demographics & values, and personality. We then interpreted these strategies through the lens of theories germane to attraction--Nisbett and Wilson's theory of introspection, Asch's theory of person perception, and Signaling theory.
Online Dating Coaches’ User
Evaluation Strategies
Abstract
Users of online dating systems want to evaluate each
other to predict who they will be attracted to in-person.
Prior research into evaluation of online dating profiles
has shown how users struggle to evaluate physical
attractiveness and demographic traits because of
deception. Yet we have little knowledge about
successful user evaluation strategies, or evaluation of
other traits known to influence attraction like
personality. We addressed these gaps in knowledge
through an interview study of professional online dating
coaches (n=27) to extract their self-proclaimed
successful user evaluation strategies for 3 categories of
traits derived from attraction literature: physical
appearance, demographics & values, and personality.
We then interpreted these strategies through the lens
of theories germane to attractionNisbett and Wilson’s
theory of introspection, Asch’s theory of person
perception, and Signaling theory.
Author Keywords
Online dating; Signaling theory; Impression formation
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g.,
HCI): Miscellaneous.
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CHI'16 Extended Abstracts, May 07-12, 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
ACM 978-1-4503-4082-3/16/05.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2892482
Doug Zytko
New Jersey Institute of
Technology
Newark, NJ 07301
daz2@njit.edu
Sukeshini A. Grandhi
Eastern Connecticut State
University
Willimantic, CT 06226
grandhis@easternct.edu
Quentin Jones
New Jersey Institute of
Technology
Newark, NJ 07301
qgjones@ acm.org
Introduction
Online dating systems are now a major way for long-
term romantic partners to discover each other [2]. A
common objective of online dating system use is to
evaluate attraction to other users online that will
hopefully match evaluations of attraction in-person.
There are two gaps in knowledge regarding online
dating system use that we address with this late
breaking work: 1) an understanding of strategies
considered successful for evaluating users online that
match in-person evaluations, and 2) an understanding
of how personalitya prime influence on attractionis
evaluated online.
Online Dater Evaluation Strategies
Online daters utilize user-profile information and
private messaging to infer traits and form impressions
about potential dates [17]. Users often struggle to form
impressions through these systems that are deemed
accurate in-person because of deception [7, 8, 9, 13]
and misinterpretation [5, 17]. The range of attraction-
related traits that online dating research has studied is
limited. A review of attraction literature indicates that
there are three main categories of traits that may
influence attraction to long-term romantic partners:
1. Physical attractiveness [1];
2. Demographic traits (e.g. age, income) and lifestyle
(values and interests; e.g. religion, politics) [4]; and
3. Personality (based on the five factor model in
addition to sense of humor and intelligence [6]).
Prior research about online dater evaluation has
primarily focused on physical attractiveness through
profile pictures and demographic traits listed in profile
pages [4, 7, 8, 13], but little about personality. Other
work has expanded the scope of studied traits into two
overly broad categories: objective qualities called
“searchable attributes” (e.g. height, religion) and
subjective qualities called “experiential attributes” (e.g.
sense of humor and rapport) [5, 17]. However, the
categorization of these traits is debatable (e.g. religion,
a searchable attribute, could be subjective depending
on how religious one finds another to be), and some
experiential attributes are arguably not attributes of a
person at all (e.g. “rapport” [5]). Hence when prior
research reports that online daters generally struggle to
evaluate experiential attributes online [5, 17], it is
unclear which traits these findings do or do not pertain
to. Collectively, prior research leaves us with an
ambiguous understanding of user evaluation across a
more encompassing collection of attraction influences.
Prior findings of user-evaluation struggles are perhaps
a consequence of the sampling method used. Many
previous studies investigated active users of online
dating systems. This choice predisposes researchers to
discovering user evaluation struggles because
individuals with successful strategies for finding a long-
term partner would likely no longer be active users. As
a result, the research world is largely unaware of
successful user evaluation strategiesthat result in
online and in-person evaluations closely matching
and what these strategies suggest about system
design. Alternative methodologies could include:
directly measuring evaluation accuracy of various user-
evaluation strategies; studying the strategies of former
users who successfully achieved their relationship goal;
or as we do here, examine the strategies put forward
by online dating coaches who proclaim knowledge of
user strategies that remedy frustrations with finding
appropriate relationship partners
(www.eflirtexpert.com). Online dating coaches are self-
proclaimed experts who sell advice on how to use
online dating systems to achieve a particular
relationship goal. They often have data and experience
from using such systems for themselves and on behalf
of multiple clients (cyberdatingexpert.com). This
contrasts with typical online daters who have the
experience of just one user (themselves).
Theories of Romantic Attraction
Online dating system-use strategies have most often
been interpreted through Goffman’s work on impression
management and Walther’s family of theories that
explain interpersonal relationship development in CMC.
Despite online dating being a process predicated on
attraction, interpretation of users’ evaluation strategies
has largely been detached from theories regularly
applied to attraction research. Such theories may lend
a deeper understanding of online dating strategies that
could in turn inform system design. There are three
such theories that we find particularly relevant. First,
Signaling theory explains how animals try to assess the
reliability of information pertaining to unobservable
traits [15]. Due to the mediated nature of CMC most
traits are not directly observable. While Signaling
theory has been applied to evaluation behavior in social
networking systems [11], application to online dating is
scarce. Second, Asch’s 1946 theory of person
perception has been integral to the understanding of
impression formation of personality, and has been
applied to the CHI domain in recent years [14]. This
theory could lend explanatory power to personality
evaluation strategies of online daters much in the same
way Goffman’s work has enabled an understanding of
impression management motives [9, 17]. Third, prior
research states that online dater evaluation is akin to a
shopping experience [10], driven by conscious mate
preferences. Yet research leveraging Nisbett & Wilson’s
theory of introspection [12] claims that humans lack
introspective awareness of their attraction triggers [4].
The tension between online daters’ expected and actual
attraction triggers has yet to be explored.
Method
To address the aforementioned gaps in knowledge we
conducted semi-structured interviews with 27 online
dating coaches about the self-proclaimed successful
strategies they advocate for user evaluation in online
dating systems in terms of three attraction influences
physical attractiveness, demographic and lifestyle
traits, and personality.
Participants
There exists no universal directory of professional
online dating coaches so we found coaches for this
study through Google and Youtube searches for 10
different variations of "online dating coach” (3000 links
reviewed). This yielded a list of 132 unique online
dating coaches (sidebar). Interview requests were sent
to all 112 coaches who advertised long-term
relationship advice; 30 responded and interviews were
conducted with 27 of them (26 over Skype voice/video
chat, 1 in-person). Eighteen of the coaches were
female and 9 were male. The coaches disseminated
their advice mostly through one-on-one advice
sessions, although impersonation of clients in online
dating systems (e.g. making the profile page,
evaluating other users, and writing messages on behalf
of the client) was also common. Most coaches claimed
expertise through “track records” of satisfied clients
and use of online dating systems for their own
relationship pursuits, as well as advanced degrees in
psychology or therapy, and professional experience in
Demographics of 132
coaches found
Gender: male (45), female
(84), teams of both or
undisclosed genders (3).
Coaching for…: online
dating only (48), online and
offline dating (84)
Relationship goal: long-
term relationships (105),
casual se x (20), both goals
(7).
Clientele: male clients only
(31), female clients only
(26), all genders (75)
marketing. Most coaching advice was tailored to
Okcupid, Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and Match.com.
Data Collection and Analysis
All interviews were recorded and transcribed (31-81
minutes). The interview guide organized questions of
user evaluation around the typical system components
of profile pages and messaging. Open coding was used
to derive findings, with a focus on the three
aforementioned categories of attraction influences.
Results
Preliminary results indicate that the coaches’ advocated
user evaluation strategies revolved around intentionally
minimizing evaluation of potential partners online to
reduce the costs of deception and likelihood of
misinterpretation. Coaches advocated meeting potential
partners in-person quickly based primarily on physical
attractiveness and non-negotiable lifestyle choices.
DECEPTION OF PHYSICAL APPEARANCE IS UNAVOIDABLE
While many of the coaches advised using physical
attractiveness as a primary decision point for in-person
meetings, none of the coaches interviewed had
developed strategies to reliably detect deception in
profile pictures. Yet they considered deception of
physical appearance an issue only if users invested too
much time in the respective partner before meeting in-
person. The coaches explained that by meeting as soon
as possible, a user can disqualify potential partners
sooner based on information they know is accurate and
have more time to discover and meet additional users.
DEMOGRAPHIC FIELDS ARE POOR PROXIES FOR PERSONALITY
The coaches also acknowledged a lack of strategy for
detecting deception of demographic traits like height
and age. They explained that mild exaggeration of
these traits is not a problem as long as users do not
rely on them as proxies of other traits. Many coaches
discussed how their clients had exceedingly strict
demographic “deal breakers,” like a minimum
acceptable height or income, because they were using
such traits as proxies for personality (see coach 21’s
quote in sidebar). The coaches explained this tendency
is due to information directly pertaining to personality
being scarce so users rely on demographic trait
information, which is almost always available, as
indirect indicators. While personality traits could
potentially be detected through free-text portions of
profile pages or profile pictures, the coaches said such
indicators are not consistent because personality
expression is not intuitive in these manners (coach 17’s
quote in sidebar). Several coaches advocated that
users relax their demographic “deal breakers” if the
pictures are appealing, and use trait fields mainly to
evaluate lifestyles choices and goals that have binary
answers (e.g. smoking habits, desire for children). Most
did not advise active evaluation of personality online.
MESSAGES ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF PERSONALITY COMPATIBILITY
The coaches tended to distinguish between information
that may be indicative of a potential partner’s
personality, and information that may be indicative of
personality compatibility (what some called
“chemistry”). Some explained that while anecdotes
written in free-text portions of profiles may sporadically
reflect personality traits, they do little to help the
evaluating user determine if their own personality will
be compatible with the respective partner’s in-person.
When discussing messaging as a potential way to
evaluate such compatibility, most of the coaches did
not find it worth the time to engage in long messaging
Quotes from online
dating coaches
Coach 21: “If they tell me
well he has to be 6’2”, I’ll say
why. […] A lot of times what
we’ll get to after ‘why why
why’ is the real answer. […]
Sometimes the answer is well
my last boyfriend was short
and he was sort of
uncomfortable with that and
it was always a problem in
our relationship. [reflecting
the personality dimension of
neuroticism]
Coach 17: “What makes it so
difficult is not everyone is
good with the written word.
In real life you have your
personality, but if you’re not
good with words all that is for
nothing [online].”
Coach 2 (on behavior used
to meet his own wife):
Send two or thr ee messages
then you want to go out on
that date […] and see if you
have chemistry. The big
mistake a lot of people make
is they think online chemistry
means you’re going to have
chemistry in-person.”
conversations for this. They believed that users over-
deliberate their message content, distorting any
indications of personality. Instead, they advised using
messaging primarily as a tool for arranging a date
quickly and evaluating personality compatibility on the
date (see coach 2 and coach 11’s quotes).
Discussion
The coaches aimed to achieve “successful” user
evaluations (i.e. online evaluations that match in-
person evaluations) by deliberately minimizing user
evaluation online. This strategy has not been exhibited
so universally in other studies, yet it has merit under
the lens of theories commonly applied to attraction. The
coaches’ advice to be less dependent on demographic
trait “deal breakerslike minimum height is in line with
attraction literature, rooted in Nisbett and Wilson’s
theory of introspection [10], showing that people lack
introspective understanding of which traits will trigger
their attraction in-person [4]. This suggests that the
“relationshopping” approach found in prior work may
not consistently predict attraction in-person [10].
The coaches advocated not trying to evaluate
personality online because respective information is
relatively scarce. This is in line with Asch’s 1946 theory
of person perception [1], which posits that “the
characteristics forming the basis of an impression do
not each contribute a fixed, independent meaning” (p.
268) but rather change meaning in the context of other
known characteristics [1]. Under Asch’s theory, the
meaning of a personality trait can change depending on
information available about other personality traits. A
hypothetical scenario: a man writes in his profile that
he meticulously organizes his desk at work, which a
hypothetical female online dater takes as a signal of
conscientiousness. Yet on a date she finds that the man
also wants to meticulously plan how much time they
spend at each location because he is worried about
being late for their dinner reservation. The female
online dater still believes the man is conscientious, but
the meaning of that trait has changed in light of
information about his neuroticism. Online daters need
multiple pieces of information about several personality
traits to contextualize the meaning of even just one,
but online dating systems do not consistently provide
enough information to enable this contextualization. Yet
as the coaches emphasized, evaluating a potential
partner’s personality means little if a user does not
know if that personality is compatible with their own.
To return to the previous scenario: our hypothetical
female online dater learns of her potential partner’s
neurotic tendencies, but she soon finds that her own
spontaneity, which spurs her to want to try a new
restaurant that they spot on the street, helps her
potential partner relax once he realizes that she is
having fun regardless of their original plan.
Personality needs to be contextualized in relation to
one’s own personality to be truly understood, but online
dating systems do little to facilitate evaluation of
personality compatibility. Signaling theory, which
originated in evolutionary biology to explain mate
selection [15], lends an understanding as to why online
dating systems poorly facilitate evaluation of
personality compatibility. Signaling theory seeks to
clarify the extent to which a piece of information is a
reliable indicator (or “signal”) of an unobservable
quality. There are two main signal types, one being
conventional signals, which are rather unreliable,
because possession of a trait is merely stated or
implied [3] (such as wearing a track suit implies
Quotes from online
dating coaches
Coach 11:I tend to take
the messaging not super
seriously. Meaning you can’t
evaluate a potential partner
through the messaging. […]
Every two or three
exchanges, you know three
from each personmeet
each other. You can’t create a
relationship solely online.
People email for too long.
You’re not there to get a pen
pal.
Coach 24: “Messaging
should be used for
establishing the integrity of
that person. So if that person
keeps their word and says I’ll
get back to you tomorrow
about [plans for the date]
and they don’t, then that
says something to you. It
says they might not be as
serious.”
physical fitness). The other is assessment signals,
which are inherently reliable because they require the
possession of the trait for the signal to exist [3]. These
signals often stem from observing the trait in action;
e.g. observing a jogger run several miles is an
assessment signal of their physical fitness.
Online dating systems consist predominantly of
conventional signals of personalitya list of favorite
books may imply intelligence, or a picture of one
skydiving may imply openness to experience. On top of
these conventional signals being inherently unreliable,
they are poor signals of personality compatibility
because they force users to imagine how the signaled
traits will fit with their own personalities. Perhaps the
only way for users to reliably evaluate how their
personalities work together would be through
assessment signals—to experience such compatibility
“in action”—but there are no assessment signals of
compatibility in today’s online dating systems. It would
be tempting to frame messaging interfaces as a
facilitator of compatibility assessment. Yet text is still
but a conveyer of conventional signals and, as the
coaches believed and as previous work has shown [16],
online daters often exploit the asynchronicity of
messages to tailor their self-presentations. Messaging
does not convey behavior and actions like those that
users would witness on a date that allow
contextualization of a partner’s personality traits with
their own personality traits. Similarly, matching
algorithm results a la OkCupid may seem an
assessment signal of compatibility, yet these supposed
matches are conventional signals because they are
based on self-report questionnaires and have no
scientific support of being better than chance.
Our results suggest that system designers have a
choice. They could actively stifle personality
compatibility evaluation online to encourage users to
meet in-person quickly (exhibited in newer online
dating systems like Grouper, which has no interaction
interface and instead schedules dates for users who
have indicated mutual interest). On the contrary,
designers could try to facilitate assessment signals of
personality compatibility (evaluation of “us” instead of
“him/her”), which will likely require new user evaluation
components to supplement profiles and messaging.
Limitations and Future Work
This study presents one of the first dedicated efforts to
investigate successful online dating strategies.
However, the online dating coaches’ strategies have not
been independently validated, nor has their expertise
been confirmed. Future work may engage in other
methods such as controlled experiments of various user
evaluation strategies to assess and compare their
success rates (however successmay be defined).
The coaches in this study advise making in-person
meeting decisions quickly based predominantly on
physical attractiveness, and purposely not trying to
evaluate personality online. Through the lens of
attraction-related theories, this strategy is borne out of
an absence of assessment signals regarding personality
compatibility in online dating systems. Future work may
explore how online dating system design could enable
assessment signals of personality compatibility. While
currently rare [5], the state of online dating research
can benefit from experiments that test novel evaluation
tools in their ability to help users better predict in-
person attraction to potential partners.
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... Previous catfishing and online dating research studies have looked into analyzing the MTV show Catfish (e.g., [9,14,30]), online dating platform designs and usage (e.g., [6,8,32,33]), or potential solutions to the legal issues these threats have caused (e.g., [5,26]). Catfishing has become a big problem on the internet; however, many research projects have failed to acknowledge catfishing and how it can affect its users. ...
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This study investigates catfishing and online impersonation. Catfishing is a relatively new social phenomenon that happens online. The term, catfishing is still foreign to many online users. It is still unclear to many people what constitutes catfishing and how it is the same or different from online impersonation or phishing. In this paper, we discuss catfishing and how it relates to other online threats like online impersonation and phishing. To see how catfishing affects online users, we interviewed sixteen college students who use social media and online dating platforms at a Historically Black College and University. Among the sixteen participants, nine said they were catfish victims, and four said they were online impersonation victims. Three participants said they had catfished other people online. In this paper, we share the stories of catfish and catfish victims. Our findings show that catfishing has affected our participants’ social media use and prevented some of them from trying online dating services.
... For example, Zytko et. al. studied strategies employed by professional online dating coaches [42] while Masden and Edwards reveal how "outsourced communities" thrive in external forums sharing tips on how to succeed on these platforms [30]. ...
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