Anyone who’s ever watched a John Hughes movie (or, hell, even “Mean Girls”) understands the concept of being out of one’s so-called league — that is, that someone is too hot, too popular, or both for you. And while it seems like a very middle-school idea — you know, girl pines for adorable quarterback or nerdy dude dreams about gorgeous girl — it persists into adulthood. Well, it did, anyway.
But there’s good news on the horizon, since this kind of ranking is a trash thought and indicative of society’s emphasis on physical appearance and social status: No one is out of your league anymore. A paper recently published in the journal Science Advances discovered that online daters tend to message people up to 25 percent more desirable than themselves, with desirability measured by a combination of how many initial messages one receives and the perceived desirability of people sending the messages. The results show that in online dating, at least, there are no (or at least fewer) real “leagues” to speak of.
The ease of putting yourself out there on a dating app is just one reason for that. Instead of having to work up the nerve to go up to the Noah Centineo look-alike at the bar or to ask your friend if she could put you in touch with her cute coworker, all you have to do is like a guy on Tinder and, in some cases, send a quick message.
“Online dating context might make people seem more approachable,” says Robin Edelstein, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the director of its Personality, Relationships, and Hormones Lab. “It’s easier to act.” But she thinks the bigger advantage is that online dating simply gives you more available people to choose from. “My guess is that in the real world, people may still desire more attractive partners but may have fewer opportunities to seek them out,” she adds.
We kind of delude ourselves into thinking what we’re on the same level as those online matches who meet our laundry lists of must-haves.
On top of that, there’s also a low barrier to entry with most dating apps. All you need is a smartphone, two thumbs, and enough data for a successful download. “Unlike real life, where you can’t go asking everyone out on a date, you can on a dating site,” says Viren Swami, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. and author of “Attraction Explained: The Science of How We Form Relationships.” No response? No problem — it’s not like you were shut down in public. Because of the nature of online dating, everyone is fair game, and there’s little to lose when you’re pursuing bona fide hotties online.
On top of that, there’s no limit to potential suitors. “Dating apps have given us access to a seeming infinity of possible matches,” says psychologist Robert Burriss, Ph.D., a research fellow at Basel University in Switzerland. “A long shopping list of must-haves in a partner will be tempting when the choice offered is so vast.” That wouldn’t be an issue, except that humans tend to think that we’re more attractive than we actually are. “Both men and women exhibit what psychologists call ‘illusory superiority,'” Burriss says. “In other words, we like to think we’re above average on most positive traits — that we’re smarter, kinder, and more popular than we really are.” As a result, we kind of delude ourselves into thinking what we’re on the same level as those online matches who meet our laundry lists of must-haves.
Not only do people have more choices online than elsewhere, but a recent Tinder survey found that 72 percent of online daters are more open-minded about who they date when using dating sites and apps. It’s yet another reason that the lines between different “leagues” have been blurred. More than ever, beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and what some people deem attractive might not be what you consider attractive, in the same way that your sister thinks her husband is hot but you think he looks like a glorified potato. “If we all agreed on who or what is desirable, that would suggest that individuals will end up with those who match their own level of desirability — as in, the most desirable people pair off first,” says psychologist Lucy Hunt, Ph.D., a member of the Arriagnew Relationships and Close Connections Lab. “However, this assumes that people agree on others’ desirability.”
But we don’t, which is why Swami is wary of the findings from the aforementioned paper, particularly its measure of desirability. It’s more that personal preferences are just that — personal. “Desirability is not a static quality,” he explains. The study, he says, discounts a lot of other factors that do determine desirability and only come through over time and through social interaction.
That’s partly because we don’t always know what we want. “Although we do see evidence that people agree on what traits they hypothetically deem desirable in romantic partners — such as physical attractiveness, intelligence, and trustworthiness — what people say they want in an ideal partner often doesn’t match who they actually choose in real-life, face-to-face scenarios,” says Hunt. That’s why when you fall for someone, many preconceived notions of what you want in a partner — wavy hair, ability to play guitar, whatever — fall by the wayside.
While you might initially react to those qualities online, they don’t tell you anything about how desirable a person is in the real world. “With online dating, desirability is skewed heavily toward physical appearance,” says Swami. “The problem is that physical attraction is a dynamic quality. It doesn’t mean they’ll be physically attractive in every social interaction.” Eventually, you’ll have to log offline and meet in real life — like, oh, on a date. And that can make your wavy-haired, guitar-playing boo look more like a) Prince Charming or b) a total ogre.
Desirability is not a static quality.
“How a person treats the staff at a restaurant, how a person responds to traffic delays, how engaging a person is at a party — things like this do not usually come through until you meet that person face-to-face,” says Hunt. Given that, “it doesn’t hurt to aim a little higher in terms of what is conventionally attractive,” she adds. After all, no harm, no foul. So, sure, you can go ahead and like the guy on Tinder with killer arms all day long. But no matter what “league” you think he’s in, only spending time with him IRL will reveal whether he’s actually a catch.
Now that dating apps give us access to more potential partners than ever before, as well as the license to ask out someone you perceive as more attractive than you (whether or not that’s actually the case), the concept of someone being out of your league is irrelevant. It also places all of the importance on those characteristics that, sooner or later, become secondary to other traits. That’s why no matter how hot someone seems on a dating app, it’s worth moving the conversation offline sooner. Only then will you get more data and context to measure just how desirable they are to you. (“To you” being the key words there.)
“I believe that the advantage lies not in finding a broadly desirable partner, but in finding someone whom you as an individual find uniquely desirable,” says Hunt. The better you know someone, the more likely you’ll covet them — or not.