"The willingness to reciprocate may tell us more about site users' 'real' preferences than their willingness to initiate contact.
"We are generally unwilling to cross racial lines — unless someone else takes the vulnerable step of making the first move." The effect is temporary, he said, likely because after a few days the usual patterns of getting messaged mostly by people of one's own race reconfirm a user's initial bias and steer them back in that direction.
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But when Lewis looked at replies to messages, he found different results: Users were just as likely to respond to a message from someone of a different race as they were to a suitor of the same race.
Furthermore, for about a week after striking up a message conversation with someone of a different race, the receiver was more likely to initiate contact with other users of that background.
In Asian and Indian users — the groups least likely to initiate contact with a user from a different race — the reversal was especially pronounced, while white and African-American users were equally likely to initiate and respond to a message from someone of a different ethnicity.
Lewis suggests the results can be explained by what he calls "preemptive discrimination": "We expect that someone from a different background wouldn't be interested in us," he said.
All identifying information, photos and essays were stripped from the profiles, so that Lewis was only aware of the user's race, gender and the timestamp of their messages.
For the most part, users overwhelmingly chose to message people from their own racial background.
A Pew Research Center report in 2012 found 1 in 12 marriages were mixed race, or 8% compared with just 3% of married couples in 1980, the first year that data was tracked through the Census.