Nov. 4, 2013 Usually, research findings within the state of U. S. race relations are pretty bleak. But a study of online dating by UC San Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis shows that racial barriers to romance are certainly not as insurmountable as we might imagine.
Published Nov. 4 in the online early model of the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences , “ The Limits of Ethnic Prejudice” analyzes, over a two-and-a-half 30 days period, the interaction patterns associated with 126, 134 users in the United States from the popular dating site OkCupid. com.
The study results in the nutshell: Race still matters on the internet. People still self-segregate as much as they do in face-to-face interactions; most, which is, still reach out to members of their own ethnic background. But people are more likely to reciprocate a cross-race overture than prior research would lead to us to anticipate. And — once they have responded to a suitor from a different race — people are then themselves more likely to cross racial lines and initiate interracial contact in the future.
Lewis’ s study of passionate social networks considered only heterosexual relationships, for apples-to-apples comparison with the majority of previous findings, and only those people, for the sake of simplicity, who self-identify along with one and only one of the top five most populated of OkCupid’ s racial types: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino and Indian (South Asian).
He analyzed only the first message sent and the initial reply. All messages were stripped of content. Only data within the sender, receiver and timestamp from the message were available.
The tendency to initiate contact within one’ s own race, the study observes, is strongest amongst Asians and Indians and poorest among whites. And the biggest “ reversals” are observed among groupings that display the greatest tendency in the direction of in-group bias, and also when a person is being contacted by someone from the different racial background for the first time.
Lewis unites his diverse findings with an explanation he phone calls “ pre-emptive discrimination. ”
“ Based on a lifetime associated with experiences in a racist and racially segregated society, people anticipate discrimination on the part of a potential recipient and are largely unwilling to reach out in the first place. But if a person of another race expresses interest in them first, their assumptions are falsified — and they are a lot more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future, ” he said.
The effect can be short-lived, however: People go back to recurring patterns in about a week.
Why? “ The new-found optimism is quickly overwhelmed from the status quo, by the normal state of affairs, ” Lewis said. “ Racial bias in assortative mating is a strong and ubiquitous social phenomenon, and one that is difficult to surmount even with little steps in the right direction. We have a long way to go. ”
Earlier work on racial bias within assortative mating (or the non-random pairings of people with similar traits) had trouble disentangling how much has been due to prejudice and how much in order to geography or meeting opportunities. Lewis was able to control for these factors in the analysis, and this is one reason he is a champion of additional tasks of the sort his paper identifies.
“ Online dating provides new insights into the timeless interpersonal process of finding a romantic partner, ” said Lewis, assistant professor associated with sociology in the UC San Diego Department of Social Sciences.
These “ digital footprints” associated with online interactions can give us the glimpse of interpersonal dynamics at the very start of romantic interactions. And Lewis takes heart from his analysis of interactions on OkCupid. We can, he believes, start to change our ingrained patterns associated with choosing partners -because they are often based on false premises.
The sociologist’ s cautiously optimistic bottom line is that “ racial boundaries tend to be more fragile than we think. ” Whenever, against the odds, A writes B of another race and B replies, B becomes more open him- or herself in the near term. The “ consequences of the action are self-reinforcing, ” Lewis writes in PNAS, “ plus might potentially set in motion a string of future interracial contact among others. ”
This work was supported in part by the Department of Research and Faculty Advancement at Harvard Business School.
Lewis received his bachelor’ s degree in sociology plus philosophy (mathematics minor) from UC San Diego and his master’ s plus doctorate in sociology from Harvard University.