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Lessons From Tinder's In-House Love Doctor

What our profile pictures and swipe-rights can tell us about human behavior, according to sociologist Jessica Carbino.
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(Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

One day last year, Jessica Carbino swiped right on a tan, sharp-featured man with dark curls and an easy smile. Carbino was, at the time, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of California–Los Angeles with brown hair and a petite build. The two set up a date and met.

Carbino had inadvertently connected with Sean Rad, the brash, 29-year-old founder of Tinder, according to a profile of Rad published in January. The date went well, according to Carbino—but Rad was ultimately more interested in Carbino as a professional match, rather than a personal one. "He was like, 'You know, Jess, you seem nice, but I'd really rather hire you,'" Carbino recalled Rad telling her. Carbino was, after all, writing her UCLA dissertation on facial attractiveness in online dating. Her research was a perfect match for Tinder's deceptively simple, signature swiping method for curating potential dates.

Today, Carbino has carved out a unique role as an online dating sociologist at Tinder, spearheading the company's academic understanding of users' minds when they flip through photographs and profiles. When Pacific Standard caught up with Carbino by phone in her L.A. office in February, a few days before Valentine's Day, Carbino emphasized the fact that the ever-evolving app is intended for relationships. That's concurrent with her research, which finds that the vast majority of users are looking for something long-term. (One thing Carbino and her colleagues detest, we learned, is the reputation of Tinder as a hook-up generator with nothing to offer users looking for connections deeper than casual sex.) Over the course of our conversation, Carbino also talked to us about her career, her studies, and the mind-boggling ways we determined who to swipe right or left on.


How did you get interested in sociology?

I think I was a sociologist before I even really knew what sociology was. I was always curious about the differences between men and women and how my life outcomes would differ from somebody else's depending on what family I grew up in, what neighborhood I grew up in, how I was raised, or my religious background. I was just always interested in sex and gender. I took a lot of sociology classes at Emory University, where I got my bachelor's degree. I was fascinated by it, I was hooked.

Why is online dating having a moment?

People have had agency about who they could partner with since the Industrial Revolution, when people were largely matched on the basis of labor, land, and family ownership. But I think [right now] is a major moment: People have a much higher degree of agency in the individuals with whom they could potentially connect and meet with. Today, individuals have the potential to meet those they otherwise would not meet because they're able to break down institutional barriers—the neighborhood they live in, the workplace they're in, the school they go to, the family they grew up in, their social network. They're now able to have a much more expansive pool of people from which to select a romantic partner.

Dr. Jessica Carbino. (Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Carbino)

Dr. Jessica Carbino. (Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Carbino)

What are some of the most interesting pieces of data you've found about the ways people match, and who they are attracted to?

In sociology, there’s this term called assortative mating [a socioeconomic principle that argues people seek matches that are educationally and financially on at least the same level they are]. The principles of assortative mating apply on Tinder. People still care about matching on demographic characteristics—but facial attractiveness is a very key element in the process too.

Recently, we came up with a study that showed that the vast majority of Tinder users wear a neutral color in their photos. That is something that was very surprising to me, because I would have thought that intuitively, people would want to stand out in their photos, and wearing more muted colors in a photo doesn't allow you to do that.

Another thing that was surprising to me was the number of selfies that people [post] when they're using Tinder, which is something that has been found across a variety of different social media platforms. It was very interesting to see that Tinder is very consistent with other social media platforms in terms of how people present themselves—I think it's part of a larger cultural phenomenon.

And, you know, people always talk about [online daters] having dogs in photos, but really the vast majority of photos do not include a dog.

It seems like Tinder is currently focused on relationships. Is Tinder trying to dispel its hook-up reputation?

One thing to note is that 80 percent of Tinder users are looking for a relationship that's not a hook-up. They're looking for boyfriends, girlfriends; they're looking for dates. They're looking for a long-term relationship.

As for the people who say that Tinder is not necessarily comprehensive in terms of providing regular information, I would say that's wrong. Relative to other dating sites or applications, where people can write a diatribe about themselves, Tinder provides you with a short bio, which is very helpful. When you're writing a great deal about yourself in a bio, your stated preferences might not necessarily match your revealed preferences. And a lot of research indicates—including my own for my dissertation—that the stated preferences for individuals aren't necessarily consistent with their revealed preferences.

How does the photo and visual emphasis help with the matching process?

One of the very important contributions scientifically has been the notion of "thin-slicing." People are actually able to analyze a photo or a snapshot of somebody, whether in person or not in person, and gauge a great deal of information about the person with a lot of accuracy, very fast. [That's true] whether or not somebody is in the same social group as you, the same ethnic group as you, the same background as you or not. You can learn whether or not somebody seems kind, intense, upset, aggressive from photos—photographs provide you with a great deal of information.

At the same time, there are many forms of identity, and by being able to curate their profile in a very concerted manner, people are able to present themselves in the way they want to be perceived to other users, which is a really wonderful thing. When you're entering the bar, you are often facing a great deal of information. You don't know if someone is single, you don't know if someone is educated, you don't know if somebody is a Rhodes Scholar. All you know is that they're at a bar. On Tinder, you know that they're single. You know whether or not they're educated, and we provide jobs and work [information] in the profile. You're able to learn so much more about somebody on Tinder than you are than in the real world, theoretically, unless you actually start talking to them, which most people tend to not do.

Could you give an example of how "thin-slicing" plays out at Tinder?

People tend to associate some type of physical attribute with a type of character attribute. A very strong jawline, for instance, is a symbol of attractiveness and masculinity [for a man]. But for some women, attractiveness and masculinity may be negatively associated with certain character traits that they don't like. A softer jawline might be less associated with that, and instead associated with more compassionate, kinder tendencies. Women may associate a harder jawline with more brash, more narcissistic tendencies.

Are there any other unexpected sociological cues that play out in your research?

In my dissertation, I found that, if a woman messages a man online, the man is more likely to respond to the woman if she is more conventionally attractive. But if a man messages a woman, a woman is less likely to respond to him if he is more attractive. And that's because women consider attractiveness a proxy for characteristics that may be undesirable, like arrogance or selfishness, whereas men might rely more on evolutionary biology, biological factors to form their preferences, as well as social factors.

One thing we get asked a lot is what type of photos work well for [users]. We always get people asking, "Should I put up a headshot?" I think that this last piece of data indicates that might not work so well. For men, headshots might not be an effective strategy because women might perceive more attractive men as being associated with negative characteristics. A headshot might strongly signal selfishness and arrogance to them, even if it does make the [men] look better. An action shot might help men be perceived better for instance.

Can you give me an example of how the Tinder experience changes given different cultural sensitivities? What might be different in America versus India, for example?

I was actually going to mention India, because we've been growing there very rapidly. In India, historically, people have been matched on the basis of the caste system, and haven't really deviated from that. There's a great deal of social immobility as a result—on a macro level, in society, as well as in terms of marriage because, as we know, intermarriage is often how resources are transferred across groups. What's interesting to see is that, in India, a lot of people are actively using online dating and Tinder to try to find a partner despite this traditional matchmaking method, as well as the caste system that people have often operated within.

You're dating someone. I was wondering if you met through online dating, and whether….

Oh, I can't believe I didn't tell you! We met on Tinder! We met on Tinder 18 months ago.

Congratulations! Did you use any of your sociological insight and training to "select" him?

Well, assortative mating definitely applied. I read his bio, and he had all these cues: I was able to see he had two graduate degrees, that he was also from the East Coast, that he went to school with one of my best friends. I was able to learn what his religion was, and that we shared the same religion. So I did use sociology in my own relationship. I think he thought I was analyzing him. Now I just analyze everything about relationships.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.