The OKCupid Question You’re Answering Wrong

…and more sexism in online dating

An integral part of the OkCupid experience — or at least, the part that the interface will never stop harassing you to keep doing, forever and always, until your mouse-clicking finger turns black and falls off — is answering personality and preference questions.

In a way, the questions are even more important than the profile you fill out in that they determine your “match” rating with potential dates. OkCupid was birthed from the Match Test on, and in those early days, you could be matched with dates on your question answers alone. The two of you answer a question saying you both believe book-burning is worse than flag burning and that’s really important to you? High match. You disagree on whether God exists? Low match.

Source: oktrends

The questions are user-written, and as of two years ago, there was a pool of some 257,000 to draw from. But in modern OkCupid times, the pool of the first 100 or so questions a user gets tends to be pretty consistent, largely on the themes of religion, politics, and superficiality.

These question answers are not only descriptive of a person on a individual level, but they’ve also proven in the past to be a pretty powerful statistical tool, drawing connections on a societal level that we’d never arrive at otherwise. For instance, back in 2011, the founders noted that the answer to the question “do you like the taste of beer?” was the single best predictor of the same person’s answer to the question “would you have sex on the first date?”

Most questions are straightforward, but a few are very subtly worded, as personality-test-type questions often are. One odd specimen: “Do you think women have an obligation to keep their legs shaved?”

The tendency is to surface-level read this question as, “do you prefer that women shave their legs?” and focus on the leg-shaving. But the word doing all the actual work in that question is “obligation.” If you believe that women are obligated to do anything due to their gender, whether that thing is make you a sandwich or personally change the oil in your car, congratulations: you are a (possibly unwitting) misogynist.

I want to give OkCupid users, especially the apparent misogynists, the benefit of the doubt here. Flying through the match questions, it can be hard to catch the ones with subtext. If you want to assert your gender politics and not come across as a Neanderthal, your opportunities to do so, within the questions, are thin.

I completed a profile set-up a few times to get a handle on OkCupid’s questions. The early, basic ones establish non-negotiables like the ones above, as well as drug use habits, whether or not you’re looking for a casual encounter of the sexual kind (the questions pursue this issue multiple times, from multiple angles), and your feelings on relationships with people of a difference race.

Two questions tend to crop up to address gender roles. One is straightforward, about whether men should be the “head of a household” or not. The other is the leg-shaving question. In my experience, the head-of-household question always appears after leg-shaving, and both appear deep into the process (80-95 questions deep for leg shaving, 120-140 for head of household). OkCupid stops giving the reward of newly available matches for answering questions after question 75. Neither gender-role question makes it into the first 75, but by the time a user fills that requirement, the leg-shaving quandary is not far off.

OkCupid won’t say much about how integral the questions are to the process, but according to founder Sam Yagan, “the questions are ranked algorithmically by the amount of information they add to our estimate of your compatibility.” Thus, the appearance order correponds, in theory, to how well they determine a match. Previous answers may force certain other questions to appear earlier or later, but the early set remained largely the same with each profile I started.

For balance purposes, it seems only fair that there should be a similar subtly-worded question about beards. The topic is covered, long after most people have stopped answering: “Facial hair on guys: Great/Okay/Gross.” But there is none of the gender-role assertion, and it’s just a straightforward question on styling preferences; male facial hair doesn’t carry the same cultural weight as female leg hair.

Let’s assume there’s a normal distribution of people who care about leg shaving, both in what others do and what they themselves do, with the bulk falling around the “sort of” mark. If the question were really about shaving, it’s guarding against those “totally normal-looking-and-sounding person online, Wild Feminist Sasquatch underneath all that composure and clothing” edge cases.

The reason the beard question is not so loaded and appears so far into the process is that there’s not a comparable, culturally-enforced beard-shaving imperative, military and paramilitary organizations excepted.

The reason the beard question is not so loaded and appears so far into the process is that there’s not a comparable, culturally-enforced beard-shaving imperative, military and paramilitary organizations excepted. There are, however, people who are regularly on Fox News pounding the table over why women should only be leaving the kitchen to touch up their makeup, because evolution says so.

Regardless of gender balance, the OkCupid questions are what they are, and the data-driven minds behind the service are reticent to reveal much about how they construct, monitor, or tweak that part of the OkCupid experience. Judging by posts on the now-defunct OkCupid blog and the fact that founder Christian Rudder is writing a book on the subject, it’s hard to believe the questions are not a well-honed precision instrument, one that is constantly experimented with and modified to increase the accuracy and successes of match ratings. Either way, we have a hard time knocking OkCupid for these questions. The service is just holding up a dark, slightly skewed mirror to society and showing that some of us still need space to regard women as the secondary babymaking utility sex in order to find a happy relationship.

So how the topic of leg-shaving happens to fall so high in the pile of priorities is a mystery the solutions to which lie deep in the analytic parts of the OkCupid machine. Just be careful what you’re saying with your answer — the question is not about shaving.

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