Do Women Value Ethnicity Over Income in a Mate?

The very first post on Dollars and Sex asked the question: "Do Women Really Value Income Over Looks in a Mate?"  The research we talked about in that post also addresses the issue of interracial dating, so I thought it would be interesting to return to that paper again and ask a new question: Do women value ethnicity over income in a mate?


As I wrote earlier this week, one of the reasons economists like to use dating Web sites for data on mate choice is that people often don’t act in a way that is consistent with their stated preferences.  Say, for example, that I am asked the question “How tall does a man have to before you want to date him” and I respond that height doesn’t matter to me. If I then only try initiate relationships with men who are over 6’, say, then my revealed preference is for tall men, not short men. The concept of revealed preference is an important one for economists, which is why we rarely rely on surveys to determine preferences.

If you ask an individual if they prefer to date someone their own race, the majority of people will say that they have no same-race preference.  In the online dating data we are talking about today, for example, among whites, 49% of all women and 22% of men declare a preference for white mates while only 30% of black women and 8% of black man declare a preference for black mates. Asians are the only ethic group in which men’s same-race preference is (slightly) greater than the women of their race, with both close to 21%.  Hispanic women have a lower stated same race preference than another ethnicity of women, but it is still greater than of Hispanic men. So white women are the only group in which less than 70% claim they have no preferences when it comes to race.

This paper uses data from an online dating site using first email contact between site users as an indication of preference.  They find that after controlling for all other factors that might contribute to first email contact (age, marital status, income, education, children etc.) every ethnic group “discriminates” based on race. Black and Hispanic men receive half as many first contact emails from white women as white men do and Asian men are contacted only about one fourth as often. They also find the same result as the research we talked about in my last post, that women have a stronger same-race preference then men. Asian men and women discriminate less than any other ethnicity. Women who claimed in the initial survey that ethnicity wasn’t important to them in mate choice discriminated just as much as those who stated that preference up-front.

So, here is a question: If a woman cares about her mate’s income and ethnicity, what would a man’s income have to be to make a woman want to contact him even though he is of a different race than her? Imagine the following experiment. A woman can choose between communicating with two men. One earns $60,000 a year and is the same race as her. The other earns X dollars per year and is one of three different races than her. Every other observable characteristic about these two people is identical. What would X have to be in order to make a woman prefer the man in the other ethnic group?

The results are striking. An African-American man would have to earn $154,000 more than a white man in order for a white woman to prefer him. A Hispanic man would need to earn $77,000 more than a white man, and Asian man would need, remarkably, an additional $247,000 in additional annual income.

So do women value ethnicity over income in a mate? They certainly seem too. If income was the more important factor in mate choice these numbers would be small; it would take very little additional income to entice a woman to date a man of a different race.  The fact that the numbers are so large suggests that a man’s race is significantly more important that his income.

And men? Well the problem is that men don’t seem to care about income at all. So even though their behaviour suggests they care less about their partner’s race than women do, the income needed to encourage them to make the trade-off between races is incalculably large. To really estimate how much men care about race you would have to find a different measure, like perhaps physical beauty.

There is a whole other group that I haven’t talked about here and that is men and women who state up-front that they prefer mates of a different race over those of the same race. You won’t be surprised to know that those individuals behave in a way that is completely consistent with their stated preference. It seems that for those with a same-race preference it is not a lack of self-awareness that is causing them to misrepresent their racial preferences. Maybe there is a difference between what they think that should want and what they actually want.

*”What Makes you Click? Mate Preferences and Matching Outcomes in Online Dating” by G. Hitsch, A. Hortaçsu, and D. Ariely

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