In the early 2000s I recall Joel Grus telling me how reality television would become a pretty powerful exploratory tool for social science. I’m not quite sure of that now (there here’s a game-theoretic analysis of Survivor!). For example, consider The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. If you watched this series you might think that we’re still living in the same country where a episode of Star Trek was not shown in the South because of an interracial kiss. In some ways “appointment television” has become a lagging indicator.
Rather, it looks like firms whose bread & butter is “the social web” are where the gold in social science is. Consider the OkTrends blog, which is affiliated with and has access to OkCupid. These companies have sample sizes not in the thousands, but in the millions! The Financial Times has a fascinating piece on the “secret sauce” of Match.com, Inside Match.com: It’s all about the algorithm:
With the number of paying subscribers using Match approaching 1.8 million, the company has had to develop ever more sophisticated programs to manage, sort and pair the world’s singles. Central to this effort has been the development, over the past two years, of an improved matchmaking algorithm….
“People are complex. You’re constantly making trade-offs about who’s too tall, too short, too smart and too dumb. People come in and tell us a bit about what they’re looking for. But what you say and what you do can be different.”
Academics call this “dissonance”. “It’s a theme that runs through social psychological literature,” says Andrew Fiore, a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, who works on computer-mediated communication. “We don’t know ourselves very well on a descriptive level.”
This is all great, but it falls into the category of generic platitudes about avowed and revealed preferences. Most people believe in fidelity, but a subset of these people cheat. The juicy stuff is in the specific patterns Match.com is finding:
As a result, Match began “weighting” variables differently, according to how users behaved. For example, if conservative users were actually looking at profiles of liberals, the algorithm would learn from that and recommend more liberal users to them. Indeed, says Thombre, “the politics one is quite interesting. Conservatives are far more open to reaching out to someone with a different point of view than a liberal is.” That is, when it comes to looking for love, conservatives are more open-minded than liberals.
This is intuitively surprising, but more scienced up it is rather strange because one of the psychological underpinnings for why someone is more likely to be liberal than conservative is “openness to experience.” But there’s openness, and then there’s openness. I suppose one could suggest that the aversion to political conservatives amongst liberals in Match.com’s data set might have to do with the fact that liberals feel like they know what they’re getting when they date a political conservative, and it doesn’t tingle their novelty seeking tendencies.
That being said, my personal experience growing up as an adolescent in a overwhelmingly politically conservative milieu (the Intermontane West) and spending most of my adulthood in very liberal cities (e.g., Portland, Oregon, Berkeley, California) is that the stereotyping and intolerance I’ve experienced as a libertarian-conservative atheist had more to due with my irreligiosity in the former context and my politics in the latter. One might suggest then that the appropriate analog for the Christian nationalist religious identity of many conservatives amongst secular liberals is the set of political positions which they espouse. Both signal virtue and righteousness, even if the details differ.
Though one should be careful of taking one glimpse into Match.com’s data set too seriously. Context matters, and I don’t know if there’s selection bias here (one suspects that eHarmony has a more conservative clientele, so right-wingers using Match.com might be more adventuresome by nature). Unfortunately I doubt that those outside of these firms will have much access all their delicious information, but people leave companies. I recall a friend telling me that he overheard some Facebook employees batting around how to predict when you were about to unfriend someone a few years back.