Dating Across Ideological Lines

by Reihan Salam

Tyler Cowen recently highlighted an interesting finding made by researchers at, drawn from an article by David Gelles in the Financial Times:

“Before, matches were based on the criteria you set. You meet her criteria, and she meets yours, so you’re a good match,” Thombre explained. “But when we researched the data the whole idea of dissonance came into focus. People were doing something very different from the things they said they wanted on their profile.”

As a result, Match began “weighting” variables differently, according to how users behaved. For example, if conservative users were actually looking at profiles of liberals, the algorithm would learn from that and recommend more liberal users to them. Indeed, says Thombre, “the politics one is quite interesting. Conservatives are far more open to reaching out to someone with a different point of view than a liberal is.” That is, when it comes to looking for love, conservatives are more open-minded than liberals.

So what Thombre is telling us is that conservatives are less discriminating than liberals. But of course conservatives are more likely to be men than liberals, and men as a general rule will, ahem, entertain the idea of entering into a romantic relationship with a, um, wider range of movement-enabled beings than women. 

I’m reminded of a 2008 paper on “Racial Preferences in Dating,” co-authored by one of my old classmates. The abstract reads as follows:

We examine racial preferences in dating. We employ a Speed Dating experiment that allows us to directly observe individual decisions and thus infer whose preferences lead to racial segregation in romantic relationships. Females exhibit stronger racial preferences than males. The richness of our data further allows us to identify many determinants of same-race preferences. Subjects’ backgrounds, including the racial composition of the ZIP code where a subject grew up and the prevailing racial attitudes in a subject’s state or country of origin, strongly influence same-race preferences. Older subjects and more physically attractive subjects exhibit weaker same-race preferences. [Emphasis added] 

Razib Khan wrote an post on the paper back in 2008, which raises a number of interesting issues and questions. One commenter, tcp, offered a hypothesis:

Women are interested in a mate, a long-term companion, a provider. Their racial preference in choosing a mate is influenced by the other ‘providers’ that they have encountered growing up. All elder family members were the same race. There’s a high probability that the community they were raised in and its authority figures (religious, political & educational) were the same race as well. For women, choosing a mate of a different race isn’t exotic, it’s risky.

This is of course very crude, but interesting nevertheless. Why wouldn’t this bias against risk be true of more physically attractive subjects? One possibility is that the relevant risk is to one’s social standing. The social standing of the more physically attractive (or, to use Catherine Hakim’s framework, those richer in “erotic capital“) might be more secure than that of the less physically attractive, and so they can “afford” to engage in riskier behavior. 

But doesn’t this imply those who grew up in more affluent households would also exhibit weaker same-race preferences? From the paper:

We also find that subjects’ backgrounds strongly influence their racial preferences. First, we consider the effect of the prevailing attitudes towards interracial marriage in subjects’ state or country of origin, based on responses to questions in the General Social Survey (GSS) (for the subjects from the U.S.) and the World Values Survey (WVS) (for non-U.S. subjects). Subjects that come from intolerant places reveal stronger same-race preferences. This is somewhat surprising given that our subjects are graduate students at Columbia University and that many of them attended college away from home. We also consider the effect of early exposure to other races. We find marginally significant evidence that those subjects that grew up in a ZIP code with a larger fraction of inhabitants of a particular race are less willing to date someone from this racial group. In other words, familiarity can decrease tolerance. This result is unaffected by controlling for the average income in the ZIP code. Finally, we also find that more physically attractive people care less about the race of the partner. [Emphasis added]

To return to ideology, one wonders how perceptions of riskiness play into the calculation. How does dating someone with different political views impact one’s social standing? This presumably depends on many factors, e.g., is the person situated in a context in which political views are of high social salience? Does a difference in political views raise the risk of public embarrassment, or of friction within the relationship? 

I once attended a dinner party during which a young woman described her shock and dismay on discovering that a friendly acquaintance had invited her to a fundraiser for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. This same woman spoke at length about how awful it was that she had to leave New York city for Washington, D.C. She also identified as a native of New York city despite the fact that, as I discovered on asking the obvious follow-up question, she had grown up in an affluent Connecticut suburb. I explained to her that I too would have been horrified to have been invited to a Giuliani fundraiser as I was troubled by his failure to embrace a return to the gold standard and to fight for the repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which authorized Congress to establish a federal income tax, thus ushering in a century of socialism and moral turpitude. But, I mean, who wasn’t troubled by that? 

Though it would make a great Vows column, this woman and I are not in fact engaged to be married.