Don’t tell Mary Matalin and James Carville, but researchers have found that online daters time and time again choose to pursue romantic relationships with people from their own political party and with similar beliefs.
Stanford Graduate School of Business Associate Professor Neil Malhotra and Yale University political science Professor Gregory Huber analyzed thousands of interactions from an online dating website. Their findings, presented last fall in a research paper titled “Political Sorting in Social Relationships,” show political affiliation rivals education level as one of the most important factors in identifying potential mates.
“We underestimate how much politics affects our daily lives,” Malhotra said in a news release issued Monday. “After an election is over, we don’t think about it, but in fact our political affiliations strongly affect other aspects of our lives, such as our romantic choices.”
And that has important implications beyond the households that politically similar individuals may form, he says.
“At the highest levels within our political system, we increasingly see that people are unwilling to work and communicate with each other,” he said. “Simply put, our society has become more and more polarized, and we wanted to explore if political preferences in romantic relationships could begin to explain part of the divide in America.”
So, Democrats – take a Republican out to dinner this Valentine’s Day. You’ll be striking a blow for bipartisan cooperation and the future of the Republic. And hey, you might get lucky, too.
When people pair with individuals of similar political beliefs, their households can become echo chambers that transmit extreme views to the children, Malhotra said. In fact, research shows that children are more moderate if their parents have differing political viewpoints. There is a genetic story at play, as well: Studies of twins demonstrate a genetic predisposition for certain political beliefs, which suggests that offspring of like-minded individuals may be predisposed to more extreme beliefs.
So Malhotra and Huber launched a laboratory experiment in which they presented participants with online dating profiles. Participants evaluated profiles more positively (e.g. had greater interest in dating the targeted individual) when the target had their same political ideology and level of interest in politics. Study participants even found online candidate profiles more physically attractive if they shared similar political beliefs.
To validate these results, the researchers partnered with an online dating website, which provided the team a unique window to observe people’s beliefs and preferences before they meet and interact in a marriage market. It also provided a wealth of data since, according to a Pew Research study, 74 percent of single Americans seeking partners have used an online dating site.
The team developed a set of seven new questions that users were asked when signing up for the online dating service. The questions measured three different political characteristics: political identity, including party affiliation; issue positions; and political participation. Most users opted to keep their answers to these questions private, meaning that other users could not proactively search for potential mates using these criteria.
Still, after assessing how men and women interacted via the site’s messaging function, Malhotra and Huber found that — in line with the results from the lab study — shared political characteristics increased the messaging rates in statistically significant ways above a baseline rate. Shared partisanship increased messaging rates by 9.5 percent, shared levels of political interest increased messaging rates by 10.7 percent, and shared ideas about how to balance the budget increased messaging rates by 10.8 percent.
These are similar to the messaging boosts found from shared educational background and height; slightly lower than race; and lower than religion. But since political characteristics were not disclosed — unlike these other publicly disclosed characteristics — it shows “how strong the political effect is, and how easy it is for people to pick up on cues about political beliefs,” Malhotra said.
Malhotra said their findings indicate reduced political disagreement within households, which can lead to the rise of political enclaves, which means “partisan polarization could get much worse.”