The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Why Is eHarmony So Successful?

Why strict, conservative churches are strong

Is eHarmony successful for the same reason that conservative churches are strong?

In 1994, the economist Laurence R. Iannaccone published a paper entitled "Why Strict Churches Are Strong."  In the paper, Iannaccone explains why strict, conservative churches are stronger and their memberships grow faster than less strict, liberal churches in the United States, a long-term historical trend first documented by Dean Kelley in his 1986 book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.  Iannaccone suggests that the strength of strict, conservative churches has nothing to do with their theology or even with religion at all.

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Strict, conservative churches demand so much from their members in terms of their daily behavior.  The churches govern what the members can eat, what they can wear, how they can speak, and, in general, how they can live their daily lives.  In sharp contrast, less strict, liberal churches do not have any of these demanding rules; their members can do whatever they want.  So only individuals who are very committed to their faith and their church would join strict, conservative churches, because they are the ones who would not mind all the rules and regulations just to be a member of the church.  As a result, members of strict, conservative churches stay with their church through thick and thin.  In contrast, anyone can join (and leave) less strict, liberal churches because on average they are less committed to the church.  In other words, strict, conservative churches are stronger because they screen their members more carefully.

You immediately recognize that other organizations (whether knowingly or not) also employ the same logic to maintain strong membership.  The reason you must endure so much hazing during Hell Week to join college fraternities and sororities is that they only want truly committed pledges to join.  Obviously, if you are willing to make a complete fool of yourself, and, worse yet, potentially risk your life and limb, just to join the fraternity or sorority, you are very committed to the house and its membership.  Anyone less committed (and more sane) would not go through all the hazing just to join.

I've recently attended a public lecture by Virginia Postrel, former Editor of Reason (which was mine for attending her talk).  In her lecture, Postrel talked about consumer choice in a world of exploding product variety.  Because consumers in the United States face so much choice of products, some of them now need the service of choice mediators (whether electronic or human).  Amazon's "recommendations for you" are an example of electronic choice mediators; instead of having to go through thousands of titles published every year to choose which books to buy, Amazon's computer program selects a few titles for you to choose from, because it knows you are predisposed to like them based upon your past purchases, ratings, and page views.  Wedding planners are an example of human choice mediators.  Instead of the busy bride and groom having to go through hundreds of possible wedding cake designs or engraved invitation styles, the wedding planner suggests a few for them to choose from based on her personal (if recent) knowledge of the couple and what they are like.

After the lecture, I suggested to Postrel that perhaps the best example of a choice mediator is eHarmony, which is currently the most successful computer dating service in the United States.  According to their own claim, 2% of all marriages in the United States today began with eHarmony.  (I'm personally a bit skeptical of the claim, and would love to learn how exactly eHarmony computed the figure.  But I digress.)

According to Dan Ariely, the secret of eHarmony's success is eliminating choice.  Too many choices could be debilitating, which is why we need choice mediators.  If you join any other computer dating service, like Match.com, you have to read hundreds and thousands of profiles of potential dates, and you have to decide whom you want to contact, and you have to decide whom you want to date.  eHarmony eliminates all the debilitating choices for you.  They tell you whom to date (based upon lengthy questionnaires that members fill out upon joining), and you have to date whom they tell you to date, at least for a while.  (And you have to sleep with your date after the third date, and you have to try three different sexual positions randomly determined by the eHarmony supercomputer.)  You don't get to choose.  This seems like an extreme choice mediation, and eHarmony appears to be very successful for its strategy.

However, Postrel had a different idea.  She believes eHarmony is successful, not for its choice mediation (or elimination), but because of the extremely lengthy questionnaire that members have to complete before they could join.  Anyone who wants to join eHarmony and receive their mediated choice of dates is required to spend 18 hours filling out their questionnaires about every single aspect of their life and personality.  Anyone who is not too keen on finding a date or someone to marry – anyone less committed – would not go through all the ordeal of filling out their extensive questionnaire.

In other words, they select their members very carefully, and only admit those who are very committed (or desperate; if anyone who chooses to join eHarmony is truly desperate to get married, then it can potentially and partially explain why it produces such a high proportion of all marriages in the US).  If Postrel is right, then it means that eHarmony is successful for exactly the same reasons that strict, conservative churches and college fraternities and sororities are successful – extremely high initial cost of membership.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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