21 per cent of people who engage in this aspirational behaviour do get replies from a mate who is out of their league.
Out of your league? Majority of online daters seek out partners who are more desirable than themselves, according to a study.
The research, published in the journal Science Advances, suggests the notion that an attractive person is "out of your league" does not often dissuade dating hopefuls - at least online.
The analysis shows that hierarchies of desirability - or "leagues" - emerge in anonymised data from online dating networks in four major US cities.
The majority of people in these dating networks contact prospects who are 25 per cent more desirable than themselves.
They also tend to tailor their messaging strategies, sending relatively longer messages to contacts who are further up the hierarchy.
"We have so many folk theories about how dating works that have not been scientifically tested," said Elizabeth Bruch, a sociologist at the Santa Fe Institute in the US.
"Data from online dating gives us a window on the strategies that people use to find partners," Bruch said.
To rate users' desirability, the researchers used a ranking algorithm based on the number of messages a person receives and the desirability of the senders.
"If you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumably more desirable yourself," researchers said.
"Rather than relying on guesses about what people find attractive, this approach allows us to define desirability in terms of who is receiving the most attention and from whom," said Mark Newman, also from the Santa Fe Institute.
The researchers applied the algorithm to data from users of a dating website in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle.
Among other things, the study reveals how people behave strategically during online courtship by altering the length and number of messages they send to individuals at different levels of desirability.
Because most users send the majority of their messages "up" the hierarchy - out of their league - a lot of messages go unanswered.
"I think a common complaint when people use online dating websites is they feel like they never get any replies," Bruch said.
"This can be dispiriting. But even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21 per cent of people who engage in this aspirational behaviour do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off," Bruch said.
The study also shows that sending longer messages to more desirable prospects may not be particularly helpful, though it is a common strategy.