In their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives, Christakis and Fowler share this impressive statistic:
“Our social networks function quite efficiently as matchmaker, even when we insist we are acting out our own private destiny.”
If you know 20 people, and each of them knows 20 people, then three degrees of separation connect you to 8,000 people. And one of them is likely to be your future spouse.
One of the strongest influences on assortative mating is our propensity to surround ourselves – to several degrees of separation – with people very much like us. We hang out with people we study with, work with, and live near. Social media accounts magnify that influence, as we become loosely but officially connected to many friends of friends.
Social Networks Promote Assortative Mating
Marrying assortatively, or homogamously, is strongly preferred by individuals. According to the Chicago Sex Survey (The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, University of Chicago Press, 1994):
“The great majority of marriages exhibit homogamy on virtually all measured traits, ranging from age to education to ethnicity. Other studies sow that spouses usually have the same health behaviors (like eating and smoking), the same level of attractiveness, and the same basic political ideology and partisan affiliation.”
Christakis and Fowler:
“Without social networks your odds of finding a homogamous match are slim.
Social networks bring people together and serve up soulmates in the same room. Bigger and broader social networks yield more options for partners, facilitate the flow of information about suitable partners via friends and friends of friends, and provide for easier (more efficient, more accurate) searching. Hence they yield “better” partners in the end.
…Who we befriend, where we go to school, where we work – all these choices largely depend on our position in a given social network.”
Social Networks Provide Opportunities to Meet Potential Partners
Today we search for partners in a predictable progression:
1. First: our own network, including friends and coworkers.
2. Second: friends’ friends, coworkers’ siblings.
3. Third: Circumstances like parties, which bring us in touch with people farther away in the network.
This last group – the third degree of separation – is known as “Weak Ties.” Weak Ties are valuable for connecting us to people we do not know at all.
What I find most fascinating is that the way in which you are introduced to someone correlates pretty strongly to the kind of relationship you’re likely to have, from a one-night stand to marriage.
Compare the differences:
Introductions made by family members are much more likely to result in marriage. This makes sense, as family members serve as an excellent filter for weeding out cads and other undesirables.
But look at the difference when one party introduces themselves! This is not a red flag, certainly – a third of married couples meet this way, either through weak ties or strangers in random encounters. But being approached by a stranger is far more likely to result in a ONS than marriage. In fact, there’s a steady decrease in that number as relationships last – 36% of cohabitors were self-introduced and 42% of LTRs met that way.
Keep in mind that online dating, which now accounts for about a fifth of American marriages, would fall under the “self” category.
What does this mean for your dating strategy?
Half of all marriages are between people who meet via family and friends.
If you are looking for a LTR or life partner, encouraging your close personal network to introduce you to eligible people is essential. I find that people are often shy about admitting they want a real relationship – get over it. If you clue in the people who love you, they’re much more likely to keep you in mind and be proactive.
About 15% of marriages result from introductions to Weak Ties.
It’s important to cultivate your social network out to that third degree. Make yourself available to socialize. Say yes to all invitations. Initiate social plans and include friends of friends where you can.
Don’t rule out those who introduce themselves, but proceed with caution.
Be on guard for the player, the Avoidant attacher, the narcissist, the red pill misogynist looking to settle a score. (Totals exceed 100% due to substantial overlap. 😛 ) All of these guys are more likely to approach cold. Filter, filter, filter. Then be open to kismet.
The authors note that Random Encounters work especially well when incidental physical contact is involved. Think of the glove grab in Serendipity or leashes getting tangled in Lady and the Tramp. In fact, people who are good at flirting will often contrive these “accidental” meetings and make the most of the opportunity to touch. They “make their own luck,” according to the authors.
Social Networks Influence Our Attraction Cues
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith said “Many consumer demands arise not from innate needs but from social pressures.” The role of our personal social networks is considerable in deeming whom we find attractive, because attraction is adaptive and malleable:
“Until recently, most research on partner choice and assessments of attractiveness has focused on an individual’s independent preferences. Yet there are good biological and social reasons to suppose that perceptions of attractiveness can spread from person to person.
Each social network is a “pond” – you don’t have to be a the most desirable to get the most desirable – you just have to be more desirable than all your competitors.”
We understand this instinctively. One experiment asked subjects whether they preferred Scenario A or B:
A: Your physical attractiveness is a 6; others average 4.
B: You’re an 8; others average 10.
93% chose A.
People desire relative attractiveness more strongly than relative income or other relative advantages. Not surprisingly, men and women respond differently to social proof.
“For women there is a kind of unconscious social contagion in perceptions of attractiveness from one woman to another. Copying the preferences of other women is efficient for identifying a desirable man when there is a cost in terms of time or energy in making this assessment or when it is hard to decide.
Specifically, genetic fitness, i.e. good looks, is easily observed with a glance but other traits related to his suitability as a reproductive partner (parenting ability, love and affection to children) can require more time and effort to evaluate.”
Men react differently. College age men are less likely to rate a woman as attractive if she is surrounded by men than if she is alone. This makes evolutionary sense, according to the authors.
“When selecting mates, men are less choosy and so are less concerned with the opinions of others to begin with. But the presence of other men conveys information that there might be time-consuming and stressful competition to secure the woman’s interest.”
Of course, friends and family provide explicit comments on our partners and have a conscious influence on our perceptions. We’re often nervous when introducing a love interest to our families because their approval is so important to us.
We hear a great deal about professional networking to further our careers, but we hear little about social networking beyond the self-serving tweets and Facebook status updates.
Cultivating a larger social network has the biggest potential payoff of any dating strategy. It will provide you with an assortment of potential partners who have some measure of compatibility already built in. It increases the odds of your successfully vetting someone before they wield their nefarious charms on you.
Are you doing everything you can to take advantage of your social network? Why not aim to reach out to one new person each week? It doesn’t have to be opposite sex – all connections are potentially valid. Even your old Aunt Sadie might be helpful.