Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
What people say they'll do and what they actually do doesn't always match, suggests new research that finds online daters are often more willing than they thought they'd be to respond to interest from someone of another race.
Such studies, including one published today, another slated for Tuesday and others in the pipeline, take online dating research into the realm of actual behavior by analyzing anonymous data provided by dating websites rather than surveying users about their preferences.
"I'm showing that racial boundaries are being crossed and are more permeable than we once thought," says sociologist Kevin Lewis of the University of California, San Diego. His study of first interactions of 126,134 U.S. users of the dating website OkCupid.com is online today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Lewis finds people are more likely to respond to interest from someone of another race than to initiate such contact. But once they reciprocate, they're more likely to contact others outside their race.
"It's not that people's levels of prejudice are changing; people are avoiding others from a different racial background because they think those other people won't be interested," he says. "Receiving an interracial contact and replying to it makes you send over twice as many new interracial messages in the short-term future than you would have otherwise."
"There's a high degree of segregation by race," Lewis says. "It's part of the reason people don't initiate across racial lines."
Lewis finds the strongest within-race contact among Asians and the weakest among whites. However, if someone of a different race contacts an Asian woman, she is more likely to contact another non-Asian.
A recent Pew Research Center survey about online dating looked at the demographics of the daters but not their racial preferences. Pew found that 11% of whites, 12% of blacks and 8% of Hispanics are among the 11% of all Americans who have used an online dating website or dating app. There were too few Asians in the sample of 2,252 adults to statistically include as a separate group, Pew says.
Sociologist Jennifer Lundquist of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst co-authored a study on racial boundaries to be published online Tuesday in the American Journal of Sociology. It tracks almost 1 million online daters from the 20 largest cities in the USA from an unidentified website described only as "one of the largest dating websites."
"We find most minorities - in initiating contacts with other groups - their first instinct is to go with others who look like them," she says.
White daters' messages are likely to get responses from daters of other racial groups, but white women respond mostly to white men. Black daters, the study finds, tend to be ignored when they contact non-blacks. And, Lundquist says "black women are the most penalized of any online dating group."
In a study on same-sex online dating initiation that she presented earlier this year at a meeting of the Population Association of America, Lundquist finds gay white men and heterosexual white women are the least likely to cross racial boundaries. The most likely are heterosexual white men and lesbian white women.
Dating website AYI.com (formerly Are You Interested?) has also just analyzed two months of interactions of 2.4 million heterosexual site users for their racial preferences and found Asian women the most preferred by all men except Asians - who prefer Hispanic women. Asian women prefer men of a different race. Black men are the least likely to get a response, except from black women, says Josh Fischer of New York City, who handles data analysis for the website.
"The big thing we're learning is the difference between stated preference and actual behavior, and that's a big deal - both as a business and someone interested in human behavior," he says.
An earlier study he conducted into age preferences led to website changes after men who said they only preferred younger women actually were equally likely to respond online to women of varying ages, Fischer says.
With the new racial boundary data, "we're rethinking some of the algorithms," he says.
"Now maybe we should be showing people a different variety of members," Fischer says.
However, Lewis says his study finds this cross-racial interest doesn't last long - only a week - and then daters revert to their same-race preferences.
"Once people go out and start initiating ties across racial boundaries, the odds of getting a reply are still relatively small. No one likes rejection," he says. "These cross-race interactions are still by far the exception to the norm. People go out and have this newfound optimism about interra