Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 14, 2019

Disclosing Racial Preferences in Online Dating: Are You Making it Easier for Yourself or Shooting Yourself in the Foot?

by Michael Thai and Fiona Kate Barlow
Two women using smart phones and eating breakfast

Imagine logging on to an online dating app, such as Tinder or Grindr, for the first time and swiping through the potential dating prospects. You come across a profile that initially piques your interest, but then the person’s profile text states: “Whites only.” What would you think? Would you assume that the person is racist? And, even if you are of the person’s preferred race, would you enthusiastically invite them out or instead keep looking for someone else who does not list his or her racial preferences?

To someone who isn’t familiar with online dating, this situation might seem to be rare. In fact, the reverse is true. The explicit communication of racial preference is common on online dating profiles, especially within the gay community. Such statements either focus on what people want (such as “Whites only”) or on what people don’t want (such as “No Asians”). These statements obviously have a negative psychological impact on members of the groups being excluded, but they raise additional questions as well.

Presumably, people write these profiles to ensure that only the kinds of people they are interested in will contact them; they think that this is an efficient dating strategy. Another possibility, however, is that such statements are seen as racist and unattractive by other users, therefore lowering their dating success, even among people who are in their preferred racial group. We investigated this possibility in a recent series of experiments.

In our first experiment, we assigned same-sex attracted male participants to view a dating profile that either included a disclosure of racial preference (“No Asians or Blacks”) or did not mention a racial preference. We measured how racist, attractive, and dateable participants found the owner of the dating profile, as well as how personally willing participants would be to have platonic, sexual, or romantic relations with him.  

Our results showed that the owner of a dating profile who disclosed a racial preference was considered more racist, less attractive, and less dateable than the owner of a dating profile who did not specify a racial preference. Participants also reported being less personally willing to befriend the person, have sex with him, or date him. Surprisingly, these effects emerged even for participants who had told us up front that they didn’t think having racial preferences in dating was “racist.”

We then replicated the experiment and found the same results when the disclosure of racial preference was framed in a different way (i.e., “White guys only”). In a final experiment, we demonstrated that it did not matter whether the disclosure of racial preference was absolute (such as “White guys only”) or soft (“prefer White guys”).  Participants rated the owners of dating profiles who expressed either form of racial preference less favorably than owners of profiles that did not include a racial preference.

Our studies suggest that explicitly communicating racial preferences on a dating profile can make people appear more racist, even to those who claim that having racial preferences is not racist, thereby negatively impacting their dating success. Thus, not only do explicit racial preferences make those who are excluded feel bad; they also make the person who expresses them look bad. If the goal of using online dating sites is to maximize one’s dating prospects, the take home message from this research is clear – think twice before openly disqualifying entire racial groups when dating online.


For Further Reading:

Thai, M., Stainer, M. J., & Barlow, F. K. (2019). The “preference” paradox: Disclosing racial preferences in attraction is considered racist even by people who overtly claim it is not. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology83, 70-77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.03.004


About the Authors

Michael Thai is a lecturer at The University of Queensland. His research investigates intergroup relations, prejudice, and sex.  Associate Professor Fiona Kate Barlow is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland. Her research focuses on intergroup and interpersonal relations, with a particular emphasis on prejudice and discrimination.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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