Dollars and Sex

How economics influences sex and love

Forget AshleyMadison.com: The Internet is Good for Marriage

Empirical evidence supports the theory that larger markets make better marriages

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting at the ideacity conference on my favorite topic – the economic markets for sex and love (that talk can be found here, if you are interested in hearing the whole spiel). During that presentation I shared my belief that access to the internet is, perhaps counter-intuitively, good for marriage; the benefits of being able to search for love on a significantly larger market outweighs the costs in terms of martial infidelity.

When markets for love are small, singles are forced to lower their expectations if they hope to find love. When markets are large, as they are with online markets, singles can often find love without having to compromise on what they are looking for in a mate. And, as a result, couples enter into (theoretically) happier marriages that are more likely to stand the test of time.

What I missed when I was preparing for that talk was new research published by the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences that provides empirical support for this theoretical argument. That research finds that couples that met online, and married between 2005 and 2012 were significantly less likely to separate or divorce (approximately 6% of couples that met online were no longer together compared to 8% of couples that met offline) and reported slightly higher levels of marital satisfaction (on a scale of one to seven those who met online reported an average marital satisfaction of 5.6 compared to 5.5 for those who met offline).

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In an era in which over a third of new couples are forming online (via online dating sites, social networking sites and the myriad of other new places that we can now meet online) this is good news if we care about how divorce rates are evolving over time.

But to me, it doesn’t really tell the whole story. The problem is this: while we may know that couples that met online were searching on the larger online market, we can say nothing about the size of the market of people who met their partner offline - just because you ended up marrying a man / woman you met at your cousin’s wedding doesn’t mean that you haven’t been searching on the online market.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that that marriage is of lower quality than one you could have entered into if you married a man / woman on match.com. 

Having the opportunity to search for love online should increase the quality of marriage for all couples – those that met online and those that met offline – because the dating market with access to the internet continues to include offline meeting sites. And just because access to the Internet encourages singles to raise their expectations of what they are looking for in a partner, doesn’t mean they won’t eventually meet that partner offline.

Off course, all this says is that this new PNSA study actually understates the affect of online matching – the two-percentage-point spread in marital dissolution rates that they observe would probably be larger if we could genuinely separate out couples that searched online from those who confined their search to much smaller, more traditional, dating markets.

One final result from this paper that you might find interesting is this: The difference in marital satisfaction of those who met online and those who met offline is significantly smaller than the differences in martial satisfaction depending on which online dating site that couples met on. For example, those who met on eHarmony reported the highest marital satisfaction at 5.86 (out of seven) and those who met on Yahoo reported the lowest marital satisfaction at 5.29 (much lower than the level reported by those who met offline).

Reference:

Cacioppoa, John T., Stephanie Cacioppoa, Gian C. Gonzagab, Elizabeth L. Ogburnc, and Tyler J. VanderWeelec (2013). “Marital Satisfaction and Break-ups Differ across On-line and Off-line Meeting Venues.”  PNAS Early Edition June 3.

Marina Adshade, Ph.D., teaches at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

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