Why You Can’t Judge a Date by Their Photo

Swipe left, swipe left, swipe left. Nope, nope, nope.

It’s really, really easy to judge people on Tinder by their online dating photo. There are just so many options. And why wouldn’t you want to match yourself with only the people you find the hottest?

That’s totally fair. But there’s also a case to be made for being a little flexible on looks when you’re meeting people online, especially if swiping right on only the foxiest folks hasn’t worked out so far. If you’re not sure about a potential match based on their photos but their bio sounds awesome, it might be worth giving them a shot.

Researchers at the University of Kansas have found that meeting someone in person can change how physically attractive you find them. And judging people on looks alone has little bearing on how attractive you’ll find them once you meet in person.

“With Tinder and user-directed online dating services, people try to manage the vast number of profiles by picking the most attractive people,” said researcher Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, to the university. “Several researchers have made the critique that that is not the best way to find a partner. We wanted to look at how physical attractiveness ratings change and whether evaluating a person’s photo in a lineup helps or hurts the interaction you’re going to have.”

Can an online dating photo predict a connection?

To explore these questions, Hall and his research team asked undergrads to rate potential dates based on their photos alone. Then they were actually introduced to one of the people they had rated and had a 10-minute conversation.

online dating photo pbs rewire“Afterward, they were asked questions like ‘Did you think this person was likeable, charismatic, responsive, smart and funny?’ Then we had them evaluate the same 10 photos again,” Hall said. “Several things happened. There was a significant difference in the attractiveness rating only for the person participants had just interacted with.”

Making a non-romantic connection was key.

“Two characteristics played an important role in whether the rating changed,” Hall said. “One was social attractiveness, which is whether we think we could be friends. It’s not sexual attractiveness or romance, but likability. The other was combined sense-of-humor or being-a-fun-person measure. If you’re rated more highly in those two things, your appearance rating goes up more.”

Ratings changed significantly for the folks who had been initially ranked in the lower to middle range for attractiveness. The people who had been rated as highly attractive to begin with didn’t see much of a fluctuation in their ratings after they had actually been met in person.

If you are friendly and have a great sense of humor, you stand to gain a lot by getting your foot in the door,” Hall said. “Physical attractiveness is not fixed; it’s malleable.”

Wait to rate your date

Anyone who has tried online dating will tell you there are benefits and drawbacks to it. Meeting a mixture of people both online and offline (rather than putting all your eggs in one basket) will provide you the most opportunities to find the best match for you and will help keep everything in perspective.

Another part of the KU study showed that not rating a partner on looks before meeting up made the interaction much more enjoyable.

Two other groups of undergrads participating in the experiment did not rate the person they’d go on to have a 10-minute conversation with. One group rated other people but not the person they later spoke with. The other group rated nobody at all before their meeting.

The group that rated their conversation partner first were less impressed by them once they met in person. Hall said the findings suggest that comparing a potential partner against others is what makes the experience of getting to know them in real life less enjoyable.

online dating photo pbs rewire“Online daters understandably become overwhelmed with the number of choices,” Hall said. “You reduce your evaluation of your conversation partner because you saw more attractive choices that you think you could have had. It makes your in-person experience worse. ”

However, “using physical attractiveness to sort people to date is a bad strategy. It misses a lot of what makes for a good conversation, and the characteristics of a good conversational partner change how attractive they are in your eyes.”

He suggested online daters take the weeding-out process slowly and deliberately.

“Would I really like to spend time with this person?” Hall said we should ask ourselves. “Rather than go through hundreds of photos, digest a few at a time. Slow down. Be more careful about considering who you’re going to date. And if that person’s personality is wonderful, your evaluation of their physical attractiveness will follow.”

Check out these insights on online dating from Rewire:

In Online Dating, the Fewer Options, the Better

What’s Your Best Face for Online Dating?

Why Being Anonymous Hurts Your Online Dating Efforts

From AIM to Tinder: 10 Years of Relationships Online

Can Tinder Improve Your Relationship With Yourself?

Yes, You Absolutely Have a Type

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.