Regarding the study of attraction and dating, I’ve always been one to play Biff and push around the George McFlys of the academic world. But sometimes, those Buttheads get my attention, and nowhere are their virginal-yet-exact methods more useful than for online dating.
Perhaps I like this particular dissection of online dating because, in a way, it contradicts science. Or, at least, the half-assed science of online-dating algorithms.
You can read a much shorter explanation in the New York Times, but I took one for the team and read the entire 64-page article written by Eli J. Finkel and four others, which is to be published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
Finkel and the gang examine the validity of online dating, and I was especially interested in its critique of matching sites — namely eHarmony — that use algorithms to predict not just compatibility with another partner, but also long-term relationship success with a “soulmate.” (Sorry, I can’t help but put quotations marks around the word, since I consider the idea of the perfect partner one of mankind’s worst and most harmful inventions. But that’s for another post.)
In short, the authors don’t conclude that mathematical matching sites are any worse at producing lasting relationships than the old-fashioned way of saying hello to that honey in the bar. But after examining the facts, they don’t consider them any better, either, even though users are paying a lot more for those sites than $10 for a vodka gimlet, and spending many hours chained to their desks.
The article’s reasoning includes the following:
- Although nobody knows exactly how the sites’ algorithms work — something the authors also object to — we do know that they can’t possibly measure how two people get along after they meet each other (such as resolving disagreements), as well as what external forces (finances, stress, etc.) will arise. Yet these latter factors have far more effect on how a relationship ends up.
- The algorithms use similarities in personality and attitude to match people. And while such similarities do appear to foster attraction, their effect on long-term relationships is practically zero. Introverts do just as well with extroverts, for example.
But there is a twist: the authors suggest that to succeed at online dating, singles are better off with a screening site like eHarmony over a feeding-frenzy site like OK Cupid, just because of the illusion of greater compatibility:
A second process that may emerge as a result of users’ faith in the validity of a site’s algorithm is the placebo effect … A user’s belief in the validity of the algorithm used by a dating site may cause him or her to view a match as compatible.
To those of you familiar with the seduction community, this is online dating’s version of social proof. And I can see their point, the same way I know that a beautiful woman is more likely to choose one of two guys at a private party than one of 20 dudes at a bar. When we’re loaded with options, as on many dating sites, we’re less likely to pick one. Or we pick one for the wrong reasons.
I can’t deny that I have a bias in all this, considering how much time I’ve spent teaching guys how to meet women in person. And the report only confirms what I found in my experiment with online dating: the one advantage to it is easy, low-risk access to singles, which puts me at a disadvantage. Offline, I’m one of the few guys with the guts to approach an attractive woman.
That said, I am an emo-boy romantic, and if computers could match us all with someone uniquely meant to last with us, I would be all for that. It’s just that it won’t happen anytime soon. So I’d rather spend my leisure time in the analog glory of the outdoors.