We Are All Settling

Geplaatst op 03-02-2023

Categorie: Lifestyle

A recurring theme in dating discussions is the dread of settling, and the accompanying resentment that breeds. No one wants to feel like a consolation prize, nor do we want to feel that our options are so limited that we must compromise and pair off with someone we don’t find attractive. Of course, that hinges on whom we find attractive.

As a longtime fan of Christian Rudder, the math whiz who founded OK Cupid, I was pleased to receive a copy of his new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) over the holidays. It’s an entertaining and informative read – I highly recommend it. Rudder uses millions of Loveawake dating site data to reveal how we behave when we date online. He examines differences between the sexes, among various different groups, and shares some fascinating insights from Loveawake experiments gone wrong.

In the first chapter he addresses a human tendency so often described by guys online:

“Don’t believe anything a woman says, watch what she does.”

The implication being, of course, that women are either liars or don’t know what they want. 

It’s generally sound advice, and not limited to the female sex. For example, requiring a man to demonstrate his intentions before sex rather than dropping panties at sweet talk is a bit of wisdom that goes back at least 1.5 million years, to the origin of pair-bonding.

Deceitful tactics aside, I believe many people say one thing and do another not out of malice, but because they don’t know precisely how they’ll behave when confronted with reality rather than a hypothetical situation.

Rudder lays out an interesting example of this. You may recall this graph from an earlier post:

As you can see, men of all ages on Loveawake free dating site have a strong preference for women in their early twenties. Rudder refers to this as Wooderson’s Law, after Matthew McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confused:

“That’s what I like about these high school girls. I get older, they stay the same age.”

However, Rudder notes:

“What men claim they want is quite different from the private voting data we’ve just seen. The ratings above were submitted without any specific prompt beyond “Judge this person.”

But when you ask men outright to select the ages of women they’re looking for, you get much different results.”


♥ The 25 year-old guy prefers a 21 year-old but actually searches for women 20-30, and makes the most contact attempts to women age 23.

♥ The guy who’s 35 wants a 20 yo, searches for 24-42 year olds, and attempts to contact 30 year olds most frequently.

♥ The 50 year old searches for 35-50 year olds despite his professed preference for a 22 year-old. But who does he message most? Women aged 40.

In fact, after the age of 27, men do not even search for the women they like the best, much less contact them.

Looking at it another way, the average 20 year-old woman gets nearly 100 contact attempts from men aged 22, but just a couple from guys aged 30 and zero from the 50 year-old. Of course, many men have already gone off the market by age 30 and most by age 50, so there are fewer of them in the mix.

Rudder says that the discrepancy “resolves in a kind of pathetic compromise when it’s time to stop voting and act.” But why?

“It’s this kind of calculated no-man’s-land – the balance between what you want, what you say, and what you do – that real romance has a place to occupy: no matter how people might vote in private or what they prefer in the abstract, there aren’t many fifty year-old men successfully pursuing twenty year-old women.

For one thing, social conventions work against it. For another, dating requires reciprocity. What one person wants is only half the equation.”

In other words, men compromise. They settle or they remain alone. The question is, will the 50 year-old man fall in love with one of the 40 year-old women he dates? Or will he be forever glum over being sexually invisible to the 20 year-old woman he really wants?

Good news. Most people adapt and find love in their own wheelhouse. Research suggests that both sexes calibrate their attraction triggers based on reality, whether that reflects age, status, or their own level of physical attractiveness.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely was curious about the psychology of settling. Do we all want the top 1%? And if not, how enthused are we about compromising? Are we capable of genuine attraction to people whom we realize are not physically attractive to others? Ariely points out that people have “largely universal, culturally independent standards of beauty.” We all agree on who makes up that top 1%. So what role do our own looks play?

“The phenomenon of assortative mating raises the question of whether, beyond affecting the attractiveness of the people whom one will accept as dating or marital partners, one’s own attractiveness also affects one’s perceptions of how physically attractive those potential partners are.”

For example, does a person appear more attractive to an individual who is likely to attract only average-looking partners than to one who is likely to attract much more attractive partners?”

To study this phenomenon, Ariely used a database of 12 billion picture ratings and dating requests from 1.6 million members at the website Hot or Not.

Key Findings

  1. More attractive people are more selective.

No surprise here – they have more options and can afford to be choosy.

  1. Males are less selective than females.

Also well understood, due to the basic sexual economics of “eggs expensive, sperm cheap.”

  1. People do not delude themselves about the attractiveness of suitable mates.

This answered one of Ariely’s questions – do the unattractive experience cognitive dissonance in mating and try to reduce it?

“Whereas less attractive people are willing to accept less attractive others as dating partners, they do not delude themselves into thinking that these less attractive others are, in fact, more physically attractive than they really are.”

  1. Both men and women are uncomfortable dating out of their league.

“Although people with similar levels of physical attractiveness indeed tend to date one another, people also prefer to date others who are moderately more attractive than themselves, but not those who are overwhelmingly more attractive.”


Men are more likely to aim especially high.

Male hypergamy?

“Whereas male members were significantly more influenced by the consensus physical attractiveness of their potential dates than female members were, they were less affected by how attractive they themselves were.

Given the widely reported finding that males focus more on physical attractiveness in mate selection than females do, it is noteworthy that our results not only are consistent with this basic finding, but also show that in making date choices, males are less influenced by their own rated attractiveness than females are.”

Ariely wondered whether and how people become attracted to less attractive individuals. Did they place different emphasis on attributes other than looks? He observed a real speed dating event, and found that the most attractive people focused heavily on looks, while less attractive folks were likely to prioritize other attributes, such as sense of humor.

If this all feels a bit depressing for those of us not in the top tier, take heart:

“Among the cards that life deals out, innate physical attractiveness is one that has been shown to make a major difference, both
in economic terms (by affecting, e.g., one’s chances of getting a job, a pay raise, or a promotion; and in terms of the attractiveness of potential mates one is able to attract.

One impact that physical attractiveness has not been shown to have, however, is on happiness. People seem to adapt to the advantages and disadvantages they experience as a result of their physical looks (much as they adapt to many other situations), achieving roughly similar levels of happiness throughout a wide range of attractiveness levels.

Seen from the perspective of hedonic adaptation, the results of both our main study and the follow-up perhaps highlight one plausible mechanism underlying people’s ability to cope with attractive options that are beyond their reach: When faced with a range of options (e.g., potential partners) or life situations (e.g., states of health) of varying hedonic value, instead of adopting a ‘‘sour grapes’’ mind-set and deluding themselves that what is unattainable is not as great as it looks, people divert their focus to the merits of options that are attainable.

From an evolutionary perspective, such a motivated change in dating preferences can potentially increase an individual’s pool of potential mates, reducing the likelihood that a physically unattractive person will end up without a partner, and supporting assortative mating.

Much as Stephen Stills said in his famous song, people find a way to love the ones they are with.”

I would also add that even the beautiful people are settling. Because they prioritize looks and place less emphasis on character, personality, etc. they take on more risk in the area of long-term compatibility.

The key to happiness, in mating and in other areas of life, is adapting and staying positive. Settling for less than perfect is a sign of maturity and rationality. Most people figure it out, but some don’t. Christian Rudder describes the online dating clients he sees who can’t seem to adapt:

“[There are] two groups of people searching for each other at cross-purposes. Women want men to age with them. And men always head toward youth. Neither finds what they are looking for.”

And yet they both settle in different ways – the woman may get into a guy’s genes short-term, and the guy may assume a petulant attitude of sexual entitlement and blame women for not appreciating him.

In closing, I’ll share this quote:

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” – H. G. Wells