Close Encounters

From close relationships to online behavior

What Online Dating Sites Can and Can’t Give You

What you need to know about the pros and cons of online dating

Photo credit: Don Hankins via Flickr
Photo credit: Don Hankins via Flickr
In the quest to find romance, more and more people have turned to online dating. Once stigmatized as a venue for the desperate, online dating sites have become a normal part of the dating game. A recent survey of 19,000 people who were married between 2005 and 2012 found that 35 percent of these new couples met online, with about half of those meeting through an online dating site (Cacioppo et al., 2013).  So how can these sites help you find romance, and what pitfalls should you be aware of as you click your way to true love?

Let’s start with what dating sites can do for you.


Access to more people and more types of people:

The most obvious asset of these websites is that they provide easy access to thousands of potential dates. This can be especially beneficial for people who don’t have a large social circle that enables them to meet other singles.

In addition to the sheer number of people you can meet on dating sites, many sites can provide an avenue for meeting like-minded people. For example, there are dating sites devoted to particular religious groups, like Christian Mingle or JDate, aimed at Christian and Jewish daters, respectively. Gays and lesbians generally have fewer partners to choose from, and the Internet age has greatly increased their ability to find partners (Rosenfeld & Thomas, 2012).

You know where people stand:

Unlike other social venues, with an online dating site, you can be fairly certain that everyone you meet is single and looking. This removes a lot of the ambiguity that you face when you meet an interesting person at work or a party.

You can break free from traditional gender roles:

Because of the ease and relative anonymity of online dating sites, people may take more risks in reaching out to people who they would not approach in person. Even though men generally contact women more than vice versa on these sites, research has shown that a sizable minority of women do reach out to large numbers of men. This suggests that these sites allow some women to overcome traditional gender norms that cast women in the passive role of waiting to be approached, and instead allow them to take a more active role in pursuing the men they find desirable (Scharlott & Christ, 1995).

Good for shy people:

Shy or socially anxious individuals often have difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships (Alden & Taylor, 2004; Davila & Beck, 2002). Research suggests that those who are socially anxious (Green, 2001) or introverted (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2002; Rice & Markey, 2009) feel more comfortable communicating online. These individuals may have an easier time approaching people and opening up to others online. Thus, it is not surprising that shy people are more likely to look for romance online (Scharlott & Christ, 1995; Ward & Tracey, 2004).

So what are the downsides to looking for love online? Many of the cons are the flip side of the pros.


Too many options could be a bad thing:

As just discussed, one of the benefits of online dating sites is the access to hundreds, even thousands of potential mates, but having all those options is not always a great thing. A large body of literature on decision-making shows that in general, when we have too many choices available to us, we’re less satisfied with any one choice (Schwartz, 2004). Having no choices leads to misery, but when there are too many options, you can become overwhelmed and worried that you’ve chosen the wrong option. You can feel confident in your decision about which car to buy when there are only three under consideration, but if there are hundreds of possibilities, you’ll constantly second guess yourself and wonder if you could have done better. The same principle applies to online dating. The sheer number of online daters creates abundant choice. So if one dater doesn’t suit the bill (“he’s cute, but he seems kind of dorky”), there are hundreds or thousands more who could be better. This can lead you to pass up on potential dates because with all those options “there must be someone better out there." Online dating sites can thus foster an attitude in which potential mates are objectified like products on a store shelf, rather than people (Finkel et al., 2012).

Dating profiles provide limited information:

Online profiles are missing vital information that you can glean in person (Finkel et al., 2012), so it can be very difficult to know if you’re compatible based solely on an online profile and photo. Research shows that people spend their time on dating sites looking for searchable criteria in mates, such as income, education, and physical attributes like height and body type, when what they really need is information about the actual experience of interacting with and getting to know the person on the other end of the profile (Frost et al., 2008).

In addition, when we read vague information about someone, we fill in the blanks with specific details that may be incorrect (Norton & Frost, 2007). For example, when you read in a man’s profile that he’s a movie buff, you might think “That’s great, I’m a movie buff too!”, but when you get to talking about movies on your date you realize that while you’re a foreign film aficionado, he’s obsessed with B horror films. In line with this, a study of online daters found that they viewed each other as less similar and liked each other less after, than before going on offline dates (Norton et al., 2007).

Dating sites can put too much focus on physical attractiveness:

It has been well-documented that physical attractiveness is a major factor in romantic attraction, especially initial attraction (Sprecher, 1989), and not surprisingly, physically attractive people are more successful at online dating (Hitsch et al., 2005). But in real life, sometimes after we get to know someone and like their personality, we begin to find them more physically appealing as well (Kniffin & Wilson, 2004). Making a quick decision based on an online photo doesn’t allow for the slower development of physical attraction and may cause us to dismiss potential mates who aren’t hot stuff, but who we could become attracted to.

Pressure to turn things romantic quickly:

One of the benefits of online dating is that you know those on the site are single and looking, reducing ambiguity. But this also creates pressure to quickly turn the online meeting into something romantic, rather than letting romantic feelings develop more slowly. When you meet someone in the context of an online dating site, the stage is set to look for an immediate romantic connection and abandon the effort if there’s no spark, and this is only exacerbated by the emphasis on physical attractiveness created by online dating profiles.

Romantic relationships often do develop slowly, rather than being based on instant mutual attraction. Stanford University’s “How Couples Meet and Stay Together Survey” surveyed a nationally representative sample of adults to determine how and when they met their current romantic partner (Rosenfeld & Reuben, 2011). In my own analysis of this data, I examined the age at which survey respondents met their current partner and compared this to the age at which they became romantically involved, in order to get a rough sense of how long it took to go from first meeting to a romantic relationship. I found that those who met their partners via online dating sites became romantically involved with their partners significantly sooner (average two and a half months) than those who met their partners via other means (average one and a half years). This suggests that online dating sites don’t allow us to slowly find love the way that we often do in our offline lives.  

Online dating could become a crutch:

As mentioned earlier, those who are introverted or shy may find online dating more palatable than venturing into the offline world looking for love. But, if they choose to focus only on online dating, because it’s safer, they could miss other opportunities to meet people. 

Dating websites can be a valuable tool for meeting potential mates if you’re open-minded, but be prepared for some disappointing dates should you venture online to find love.



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Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology and co-chair of the psychology department at Albright College.


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