When it comes to dating, the “nice guy paradox” is well known. Women claim they want a nice guy who is sweet, kind, and sensitive, but end up rejecting him for a “bad boy” with an alpha male personality. However, a forthcoming study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has found when it comes to online dating, nice guys actually finish first compared to more physically attractive “bad boys” who are emotionally unavailable.

Online dating has become the new normal, with one in nine United States adults reporting the use of dating sites or mobile apps to find love. About one in four online daters said they'd found a spouse or long-term romantic partner online, up from 17 percent eight years ago, according to a 2013 survey. Five percent of Americans who are currently married or in a long-term relationship admitted to meeting their partner online.

Social psychologists Stephanie Spielmann and Geoff MacDonald suggest singletons could use online dating websites and apps to their advantage, by comparing their physical characteristics and emotional approaches to relationships with the information other users provide. The researchers conducted two experiments in which men and women viewed a series of online dating profiles for members of the opposite sex. These profiles included different combinations of desirable and undesirable information about their physical appearance and their emotional availability.

Each profile contained a photo which was independently rated by the participants as either above or below average in terms of attractiveness. It also contained answers to questions that described how emotionally available the individuals are. Statements such as, “when I’m in a relationship, I like to make sure my girlfriend feels understood and that I get who she is and what she needs,” showed the profile owners to be emotionally available. But statements like, “I get bored talking about feelings and stuff and I’m not really into talking about people’s problems,” conveyed emotional unresponsiveness.

In the first experiment, 88 female college students saw all four possible combinations of attractiveness and responsiveness, presented in random order. The women were more romantically interested in the emotionally responsive men when they had first looked at profiles of nonresponsive potential mates, compared to when they rated the profiles of emotionally responsive men first. These men were also rated as more physically attractive when their profile was viewed second, after nonresponsive men.

In the second experiment, a total of 267 women and men were recruited on the Internet. Researchers focused specifically on how the order in which these profiles were seen affected interest in a potential date who was unattractive, but responsive. Participants only viewed two profiles and had to choose which they would prefer to date. Similar to what the first experiment found, the unattractive but responsive dates were much more likely to be chosen when their profiles were viewed after those of the nonresponsive potential dates. This dating choice did not depend on whether the person was attractive or unattractive.

"These results highlight the importance of the context in which dating decisions are made," wrote the study authors.

These findings suggest something as simple as the order in which online dating profiles are viewed could boost someone’s odds of getting a date. Moreover, the authors suggest, “'nice guys' looking to finish first may want to avoid paying for options that offer to bump their profile for premium viewing.” This is especially true if their profile is viewed and being contrasted with someone who comes across as emotionally unavailable.

A similar 2015 study found the best way to turn an online exchange into a real-life first date is to have the perfect handle, photos, and headline. Men preferred women with the most obvious screennames like “Blondie” or “Cutie” while women had a preference for screennames that indicated intelligence, like “Cultured.” When it came to the main photo, women liked a “genuine smile,” while men were intrigued by women who wear red and slightly tilted their head.

Just any selfie won’t do, the researchers found. Photos where women are in the center of the group are preferable because it shows power, while men shown surrounded by a few women smiling at him shows desire. Photos that depict you touching another person, but not being touched, makes you look to be of a higher status.

Last but most importantly, you should be honest in your headline. The perfect description falls in a 70:30 ratio of what you are like to what you want. The typical yet effective, “Genuine, attractive, outgoing, professional female, good sense of humor, into keeping fit, socializing, music and travel, seeks like-minded, good-natured guy to share quality times,” is viewed more often. Online daters can also be gender stereotypical, as men like fit women who do yoga but not bodybuilding, and women like bravery, courage, and risk-taking men more than kindness and altruism.

Despite these guidelines, remember love is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and there is no exact science.

Happy dating!

Sources: Spielmann SS and MacDonald G. Nice guys finish first when presented second: Responsive daters are evaluated more positively following exposure to unresponsive daters. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2016.

Khan KS and Chaudhry S. An evidence-based approach to an ancient pursuit: systematic review on converting online contact into a first date. Evid Based Med. 2015.