Why First Impressions on Online Dating Sites Don’t Matter as Much as You Think

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Recently, a single coworker was griping about the nerve-wracking act of choosing the perfect photos for his online dating profile. “They can’t look too similar to one another,” he explained of those critical first few photos a potential date sees upon visiting your profile on a dating website (in this case, OkCupid). “And you have to be doing some kind of activity in at least one of them to show that you’re not boring,” he continued.

There was more: When this same coworker engages in witty repartee with a new match on Tinder, he makes sure he includes a semicolon in his second message — “so she knows I know how to use a semicolon.” Yet, he says he would never use a semicolon in a first message, nor would he use one in his Tinder bio — “too douchey.”

Listening to all of the arbitrary rules he had set for himself in the name of the Perfect First Impression, my first thought was, Boy, you crazy. This guy had carefully optimized every possible facet of his various online dating personas to maximize the likelihood a girl would like what she saw upon visiting his profile — or at least like it enough to send or respond to a message. I later realized the fact that he had analyzed each carefully chosen personal detail to within an inch of its life wasn’t so much neurotic-bordering-on-maniacal as it was smart-bordering-on-necessary.

Because online dating doesn’t give us a wealth of material with which to sell ourselves beyond strategically-lit photos and witty messages, we’re often punished for even the smallest of oversights: a single misused “their” instead of “they’re” suddenly becomes a dealbreaker; one photo taken from a slightly unflattering angle sends you straight into the dating slush pile; and an incorrectly used semicolon? Next.

The various advice we’ve received courtesy of Science hasn’t exactly been helpful either. Want a date? You’d better make sure your profile photos show you outdoors if you’re a guy, but inside if you’re a lady. Girl selfies are a plus, but guy selfies are a total turnoff. Include a dog in your profile photo, or don’t. Make prominent use of the color blue in your pictures, because people like blue. Dropping a :-) in a message is good, but a :( is really, really bad. Talk about how much you love Radiohead. Failing all that, just become a skinny, 25-year-old churchgoing, dog-owning drunk.

The good news is, Science has also shown us that first impressions don’t really matter all that much. Early this year, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell analyzed the activity of 200,000 users of a Chinese online dating site and found both male and female users sent a fairly large number of messages to users who didn’t fit within their stated tastes and preferences. (In other words, they were significantly less picky about who they were willing to date than they claimed.) A 2010 study from the University of California Berkeley found online daters’ first impressions of their significant other’s looks on a first date had no significant effect on the longevity of those relationships — instead, the most important factor that affected the length of the relationships was how well they felt they got to know their partners.

The above isn’t to say you should resort to less-than-flattering photos and stop proofreading your profile — the stakes are still high, and when you only have a few seconds to grab the attention of a stranger who has a dozen other potential matches waiting one click away, I’m generally for the idea that you make at least some effort to put on a clean shirt and make a couple of witty jokes.

What I am saying is a botched first impression doesn’t necessarily mean a date is DOA. I’ve previously made the case for why I wholly embrace the follow-up text/email when you want to make sure the person you’re dating got your message, and the same principle applies with online dating: Do your very best to put your best foot forward, accept the fact that you’ll make the occasional slip-up, and when you do, don’t hesitate to follow up once you’ve regained your (charming) footing — the person who responds is likely a person you want to be out with on a date.