OkCupid: five things it learned about love by tricking its users

A couple kisses in a park

OkCupid dating site admits to removing people's photos and lying about how well matched they are

LAST UPDATED AT 13:15 ON Tue 29 Jul 2014

Popular dating website OkCupid has admitted to carrying out social experiments on its users without their knowledge. It comes just a few weeks after Facebook came under fire for investigating whether 700,000 oblivious users could "infect" one another other with their mood.

In a blog post, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder admits to removing people's photographs and lying about how well matched they are to other users. "Guess what, everybody: if you use the internet, you're the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That's how websites work," he declares.

Here's what OkCupid found:

Picture is everything, text means little

At one time, OkCupid allowed people to rate each other on two separate scales for "personality" and "looks". But it found that users saw the two qualities as essentially the same thing. For example, one woman with model looks was given top votes for her personality despite her profile containing no text at all. Profile text is used to judge a person less than ten per cent of the time, says Rudder. "Your picture is worth that fabled thousand words, but your actual words are worth... almost nothing," he adds.

People are less shallow in real-life

On 15 January 2013, OkCupid launched an app that set people up on blind dates. It found that once people were on their blind date in real-life, they had a good time regardless of the attractiveness of their partner. Yet the exact same users were more judgmental online. When they were using the regular OkCupid site with photographs, they were much more likely to respond to a message the more attractive the sender. "Basically, people are exactly as shallow as their technology allows them to be," says Rudder.

Removing pictures led to deeper conversations

To promote the launch of the blind date app, all the pictures from the regular OkCupid app were removed for a "Love is Blind Day". During that time, the site found that people responded to first messages 44 per cent more often than normal; conversations went "deeper"; and contact details were exchanged more quickly. But when the photos were restored, 2,200 conversations that had started "blind" melted away. "It was like we'd turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight," says Rudder.

Even a false compatibility will prompt a first message...

OkCupid calculates its users "match percentage" with other people on the site, based on message success, conversation length and contact information shared. In one experiment, the site took people with a bad match, of 30 per cent, and told them they were exceptionally good for each other, by displaying a 90 per cent match. Rudder says that "not surprisingly, the users sent more first messages when we said they were compatible".

...But the odds of it turning into a 'real conversation' are lower

Rudder admits that OkCupid subsequently worried that its matching algorithm might be "garbage" and that it was only the power of suggestion that brings people together. So they tested the system the other way around, telling people with a 90 per cent match that they were not compatible. Ultimately, they found that the odds of striking up a "real conversation" – four messages or more – were higher for couples who were actually compatible and told they were compatible than those who were not compatible but who believed they were. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.