Men and women who are seeking relationships online are asked to indicate what they want in a relationship, whether they are seeking “just friends,” “uncommitted relationships” or “long-term leading to marriage.” There’s an art to creating profiles, including uploading photographs to prompt a potential mate to indicate interest.
People can describe themselves and their ideal relationship in a wide variety of ways, sometimes less than honestly, including exaggerating characteristics that they think are desirable. Most people do not dramatically lie, however. Instead, they use minor deceptions or small exaggerations.
Altering photos by using filters is a common way to improve one’s portrayed physical appearance. However, online dating companies have been taking a hard stance and not permitting photos that have been filtered or altered on profiles because the wide majority of daters find the use of filters deceptive. Presumably, then, online daters provide photos that are accurate and speak to their interests and intentions.
Looking for commitment?
My colleagues, Mackenzie Zinck and Laura Weir, and I examined online dating photos in July and August 2020 in Nova Scotia. We looked at 250 women and 250 men seeking long-term relationships, and 250 men seeking short-term relationships. We did not include women seeking short-term relationships because there were only 46 in the entire province advertising this intention; we did not have any predictions about the content of their photographs, so we omitted them from the main study.
We predicted that men seeking long-term relationships would include images of dependants — children or dogs, cats or other pets — more than men seeking short-term relationships, and more than women. We argued that cross-sex mind-reading — the ability to imagine what members of the opposite sex are thinking when it comes to mating — would lead men to want to advertise that they can provide care to a dependant over the long term when they were seeking a long-term relationship.
Indeed, we did find that men looking for a lasting partnership were more likely to include images of children or dogs (or mention them) in their profiles than men seeking short-term relationships.
Women, though, surprised us.
We had predicted that women would be less likely to show dependants because they would want to avoid being considered a burden, or that another man’s child would need care and time. We thought women would feel a need to protect their children, or at least not display them from the outset in a public venue among strangers.
Instead, we found that both men and women seeking long-term relationships showed dependants relatively equally, although men were more likely to show a dog, and women a child.
Studying photos of online daters is not new. A decade ago, my students and I analyzed the photos of 300 online dating profiles in terms of the types of relationships men and women were seeking. Women, regardless of the type of relationship they sought, consistently smiled more than men, wore less clothing and revealed more skin.
Meanwhile, men were consistently more likely to have grey hair, use an upward facing camera angle (potentially to make themselves look taller and broader-chested), flex their muscles and use an outdoor setting. Men seeking long-term relationships were more likely than any other group to wear eyeglasses, especially compared to those seeking an intimate connection. People seeking short-term, primarily sexual relationships rarely included other individuals in their photos, compared to those looking for dates or long-term relationships.
What is novel in this current work, though, is that dogs are so commonly displayed compared to other animals by men seeking long-term relationships. One possibility is that cats, the next logical choice, are often equated with femininity. Men who pose with cats are perceived by women as less masculine, more neurotic and less desirable.
What does this mean? When deciding which photos to select for an online dating profile, there are advantages to thinking carefully about image beyond mere physical appearance. What our findings show is that online daters offer insights into their values, and how they spend their time, by what they include (or omit) from their profile photos.
While sex appeal is certainly a noteworthy goal in online dating, so too is communication. If someone is showing dogs or children in their photos, they are communicating their interests in a way that does not match a display of a bare chest, which may be about advertising physical strength, potential fitness and sexuality.
Indeed, most men think women like that sort of photo, but the vast majority do not. Likewise, men posting photos of their expensive vehicle, perhaps hoping to signal wealth and status, often find themselves shunned by women, at least on Tinder.
Dogs, in contrast, are different, reliable, require responsibility and a safe inclusion that does not turn women off. They are not seen as a way of bragging, or showing a body that is so ripped it makes women feel they cannot compare. Perhaps men should think less about asking their “wing-man” to join them when looking for a date, and instead consider taking their dog.