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Evolution has shaped our bodies, brains, and behaviour. So surely it also impacts whose Instagram DMs we want to slide into. Which, of course, would have a flipside. If you’re looking for romance, can you exploit evolution to increase the odds of someone sliding into your DMs?

Then, all love needs to flourish is a bit of Netflix and chill or <insert millennial reference here>.

I am down with the kids

Or at least, this is the theory of Jin et al1 (the evolution exploiting bit, not the Netflix and chill bit).

They wrote a paper using evolution to predict what Instagram posts single people like. Thus, if you’re looking romance, they reckon their theory could help you pick the right pics to be alluring. Even if you’re not, they think these ideas could help people optimise their social media strategy1.

So, let’s break down their top 3 tips for romantic success on Instagram. And, more importantly, break down whether there’s any evidence for their claims?

Instagram tip #1: Loneliness is ironic

How can Jin et al. claim to use evolution like this? The gist of their theory is that we’ve evolved certain drives. Some are physical (hunger drives us to find food) but there are also emotional ones (loneliness drives us to find belonging). As such, they think that by pinpointing the emotional drives of single people, you can figure out what Instagram posts they’ll like1.

Which brings us to their top tip #1: many people looking for love online are lonely. Exploit this.

Research has shown that lonely people prefer online dating (and often spend more time on social media in general). It comes with the rapid, frequent validation (likes/swipes) that their emotional drives require1. So you should consider this when on the hunt for romance, but how?

Importantly, loneliness is ironic. It can make people hyper-aware of negative interactions, making them afraid of socialising and the risks it comes with. Thus, Jin et al. predicted that group photos, selfies, and other “extroverted” pictures would turn lonely people off1.

Instagram tip #2: People are complicated

Obviously, people are a bit more complex than single = lonely = scared of socialising. In fact, the opposite could happen. Lonely people could seek out social situations to try and increase their popularity and stop being so alone1.

Jin et al. thus predicted that most single people should fall on a continuum between the ironic loneliness of tip 1 and a need for popularity. Depending on where they were, they should find that extraverted content (like selfies and group shots) more or less appealing1.

Naturally, you could exploit this by posting content trying to attract one group or the other.

At least, you could if Jin et al. are right about this. To test it, they recruited 110 people from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. After giving them a psych questionnaire, meant to determine where on this continuum they fell, they presented them with a bunch of Instagram posts1.

Example posts for men and women. The right two are meant to be more appealing to those seeking popularity, whilst the left are for those more cautious of social situations.

So, was the lonely continuum predictive of which photos people liked? Yes! The more people were driven towards popularity, the more they liked the “extroverted” photos1.

Instagram tip #3: Sex (competition) sells

So, you now know how to appeal to certain kinds of single people. But how can you encourage them to actually engage with it? It turns out, a strong motivator is intrasex competition (ISC), i.e. do I have to compete with other potential mates for your attention1?

When people think ISC is high, they’re more likely to make a romantic move. After all, they have to do something to stand out from all the others. Liking photos and DM sliding is a good way to start. But how can you make people think that ISC is high in the first place?

Sadly, Jin et als.’ study didn’t explore that. They simply used asked their MTURK sample about ISC and tested how it influenced their tendency to like photos. As expected, higher ISC drove people to like it; but that doesn’t show how you could make it seem high1.

Intention to date someone posting different kinds of photos versus ISC for males (left) and females (right)

Evolution is only a theory

All of which seems to make Jin et als. work a resounding success. They made some predictions based on evolution, tested them on people, and found people did behave on Instagram in the expected way. Surely that means we can game evolution to help find romance online?

Alas, if only it were so simple. Like much evolutionary psychology research; the people studied by this paper are unrepresentative of the real world. Notably, their mean age was 33, much higher than the typical age of someone on Instagram. This sample was also on the small side, with the 110 people studied featuring only 41 women.

Of course, that doesn’t mean their research is wrong. Just that we can’t be sure it’s right. And even if we could, that doesn’t mean they’ve cracked some evolutionary code. If they had, these results should be applicable to everyone (since we all evolved). However, we have no idea how widespread these tendencies actually are; given this small, unrepresentative sample.

That said, I suspect following tips from a small, unrepresentative psychological study is a more rigorous social media strategy than most people looking for romance online have.


  1. Jin, S.V., Ryu, E. and Muqaddam, A., 2019. Romance 2.0 on Instagram!“What Type of Girlfriend Would You Date?”. Evolutionary Psychology17(1), p.1474704919826845.

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