As a graduate student at Harvard University, sociologist Kevin Lewis began working with a data set that tracked something that scientists had never really been able to systematically study: the earliest stages of courtship. By studying interactions in online dating, he could probe human flirtation in its natural environment in unprecedented detail. Who initiates the interaction? Who reciprocates? What happens next?
“This is just something people haven’t been able to do before because our data is on marriages or boyfriends and girlfriends. You have a couple, but you don’t see the back and forth that led to them being a couple,’’ said Lewis, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s like hanging out at a big nationwide bar and watching who walks up to who and asks to buy them a drink and who gets rebuffed.’’
Lewis, working with data from the dating website OkCupid, was especially intrigued by a puzzling pattern in his data. In general, people were very likely to initiate an interaction with someone of their own race. But they were just as likely to respond to a message from a person from another race as their own. And in the week after replying to a person from another race, he found people were more likely to make amorous overtures to someone of another race, Lewis reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Lewis’ study wasn’t designed to probe the reason for these differences, but he sees a plausible mechanism in the expectations and biases we all carry around with us. Perhaps people expect rejection if they approach someone with a different racial background, so they do not reach out to those people online. Once flattered by an online advance from a person from a different racial background, however, they may rethink their bias and be more open to trying to initiate romance with people from different backgrounds.
Lewis looked only at the initial interactions between users, and can’t measure whether any of these interactions led to relationships. The increased openness to dating people of other races seems to wear off rather quickly. But Lewis said that the message of his study is an optimistic one — and it may be more broadly applicable than just thinking about racial prejudice in romantic relationships.
“Our own behavior can, in fact, impact the prejudices of others, even if it is a short-term effect,’’ Lewis said. “It says some degree of the biases we display are based on a false premise. We’re foregoing options because we don’t think the people would be interested in us and the data suggest otherwise.’’