By Walker Harrison
In the wee hours of January 1, 2017, I set my beard trimmer to zero millimeters and shaved off all the hair on my head. In the days that followed, when concerned friends asked why I had buzzed my blonde locks, I had a few answers ready: I’d always wanted to try it out, it’d grow back in a month or two, plus it was an appropriate way to physically mirror the freshness of a new year. I kept it to myself that I’d also been a little drunk.
It wasn’t a great look. At a time when Western civilization seems to be collapsing into a sinkhole of nativism and impulsivity, being the young white dude with a shaved head doesn’t register as the friendliest of messages. My appearance did soften after a week of growth, but I still looked like an early prototype in some sort of Chia Pet mannikin series. I figured that January would not be the zenith of my romantic life.
But then something interesting happened. Even though I’d expected most people to dismiss my Mr. Clean impression, Women began striking up conversations with me at a rate higher than that of my previous, shaggier era. At the gym, on the subway, and in line at the grocery store, it appeared that my shiny head was more a beacon than a repellant.
Now the uptick wasn’t monumental and I didn’t record actual data on this trend since I only recognized it halfway through (and also because tallying the number of women you talk to seems like just about the lamest, most single thing someone can do). In general, I’d encourage readers not to believe things that are founded on anecdote…this is a data blog after all.
But the scenario reminded me of a section of the book Dataclysm by Christian Rudder, who, as the founder of the online dating site OkCupid, has access to enough user-to-user data to make up for my empty-handedness. Among other captivating discoveries, Rudder found that the higher proportion of negative attractiveness ratings a woman received, the more messages she got from men. He originally published his findings via blogpost in 2011.
“To be universally liked is to be relatively ignored. To be disliked by some is to be loved all the more by others. And, specifically, a woman’s overall sex appeal is enhanced when some men find her ugly.” — Christian Rudder, Dataclysm
Before we move on, I’d like to offer a warning: While I’ve tried to keep the analysis forthright and positive, dissecting men’s ratings of women introduces a certain irreducible aspect of objectification. If you think that might cause you discomfort, this might not be the blogpost for you.
The key to understanding why someone might look uglier but garner more outreach lies in recognizing the potential for imbalance between distributions. Imagine two individuals that are both a “6.” That is, if people were forced to rate their attractiveness on a scale from 1 to 10, the average for both would be 6.
Of course, the average is incapable of capturing the spread of votes — they might cluster around a consensus or be dispersed along the entire scale. So on the left is a “conventional” 6, whose votes are mostly stacked around the value of 6, and on the right is “controversial” 6, who receives some very high votes but also plenty of 1s and 2s. Both average to the same number, but I bet you’re thinking of two very different people to play these roles.
What Rudder found was that there was a positive correlation between the variance of someone’s attractiveness — how spread out the values are — and how many messages they received. In other words, people with disputed good looks had more suitors than those who inspired accord among their raters. In fact, people giving a woman a mediocre or slightly positive review (“cute”) actually decreased her chances of getting messaged, while receiving negative scores increased them. In other words, the next best thing to being hot isn’t to be almost hot, but actually to be unattractive.
To make sense of this, one must consider the concepts of thresholds and scarcity, in that order. If getting the most attractiveness points were the goal, then the distribution of your ratings would not matter — a hundred pennies adds up to the same thing as four quarters. But the goal on OkCupid (and, perhaps, in the grocery line) is to register as attractive enough to actually engage. So if 8 is the cut-off, then you’d rather be an 8 to one person and a 1 to the rest than a 6 to everybody.
Moreover, if the people attracted to you also believe that you are unattractive to others, they’re more likely to reach out. This is simply an act of opportunism, since suitors will assume they have less competition for a person that they find uniquely attractive. On the other hand, if they think you’re conventionally hot, throwing their bid among the many you surely receive seems like a long shot.
A calculated result
The approach is summarized nicely in a 2 x 2 decision matrix. On the vertical axis are your feelings about someone: Either you’re attracted to them or you’re not. On the horizontal is how you assume other people feel about that person: Either they’re attracted to them or not. As a result, the top left box, where you’re vying for someone that everyone else also likes, is a lukewarm situation, but the top right box, where you’re pursuing someone in a much smaller pond, has the most value.
How do you take advantage of this matrix? Flaunt your faults, your imperfections, your particularities. As Rudder puts it, “Take whatever you think some [people] don’t like — and play it up.”
Is this what happened when I shaved my head?
Now I’m not sure if all this quasi-science actually applied to me and my fuzzy head. Like I said, I didn’t even collect data and it’s possible that I imagined the whole thing — the guy who spontaneously cuts off all his hair might also be the guy having a conversation with a pineapple in the produce section. But, Rudder’s findings are backed up by a waterfall of information that his site has accumulated over years of online matchmaking, lending credence to his perspective. Plus, even if you reject the fit of his theory to my situation, there are some lessons here that go far beyond trying to land a date.
First we return to the idea of a threshold. As the “conventional” 6 will lament, there are walks of life for which it does not pay to be pretty good. You either surpass a threshold level or are lumped in with the rest, which makes any half-measures useless — do something enough to reap the benefits or don’t do it at all. Patching most of a leaky roof won’t keep water out; completing two years of law school won’t get you two thirds of a lawyer’s salary.
And finally, we hit again upon the idea of scarcity. In regards to your appearance, but also to your career, your creative pursuits, or anything else where you feel the weight of constant comparison to others, sometimes it’s helpful to swim toward a less crowded corner of the pool. Because impressing the right people can be more rewarding (and a lot simpler) than winning everyone over.
This article was originally published on Perplex City.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt