This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
Jess Carbino was feeling lonely when she started a PhD program in sociology at the University of California Los Angeles in 2009, so she made an online dating profile. She saw a world of potential matches. She could also see how they, and other women her age, presented themselves to try and get dates.
“That was just fascinating to me, and I knew I had to study this,” she said.
Instead of studying parent-child relationships as planned, she studied online dating. But she needed access to data that online dating companies have, and she knew that it could cost more money than she could afford.
So, she made an agreement with a friend’s sister, who was a professional matchmaker and wanted to start a dating site. Carbino helped with the site and in exchange got all the data.
That site is no longer around, but Carbino eventually became famous as the in-house sociologist for the dating apps Tinder and Bumble. At those companies, she continued to study online dating, but now she had access to data from millions of users.
“You have access in a way that you don’t as an academic, where you can’t just go up to an engineer and say, ‘hey I’m interested in this question. Can you pull this data for me?’ And you get it by … the next day.”
She learned that when people look at profile pictures, they want someone who’s smiling and who seems kind and approachable, rather than a supermodel. She learned that people tend to read the bios more closely after matching with someone, and that many people struggled to write bios that stand out from a crowd.
And she learned what older users, people in their 60s or 70s, were looking for in relationships.
“They didn’t want to be a nurse or a purse. They didn’t want to have to take care of someone who they hadn’t known for a long time. They talked about, ‘My husband died. I took care of him, and I don’t want to have to monitor the health … for somebody who I’m just meeting now,’” said Carbino. “They also didn’t want to have to financially support someone else.”
Three in 10 U.S. adults have used a dating app, according to a 2023 survey from the Pew Research Center. UCLA social psychologist Ben Karney, who has been studying relationships for decades, said the apps, “are sitting on an absolute gold mine — a treasure trove of data on human interaction and relationships and attraction.”
Karney said the dating apps do not need to rely on people telling researchers what they find attractive.
“Often what people say they want doesn’t necessarily correspond to what they actually want,” he said. “People say that they want to watch documentaries, but what they actually watch is The Bachelor.”