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Why Is Online Dating Successful?

Looking for love in all the right places? Part 2

In a previous post I summarized statistics showing that online dating is not only prevalent, but also slightly more successful than offline dating in producing stable (i.e., less likely to result in divorce) and satisfying long-term romantic partnerships. What accounts for this success? There is no definitive research on this question, but we can certainly engage in some informed speculations. Below, I will present a list of possibilities, and look forward to your thoughts and feedback!

1) Compatibility algorithms. Dating companies such as EHarmony and OkCupid argue that their proprietary compatibility algorithms enable users to sift through undesirable matches and identify the suitable ones. EHarmony asks users to fill out extensive psychological questionnaires, many based on established personality scales. OkCupid asks quirkier questions (e.g., “wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and live on a sailboat?), some submitted by users.

The idea that we can use reliable tests to identify appropriate partners is certainly seductive (forgive the pun). However, scientific research does not support it, at least when it comes to personality compatibility. That is, there is no evidence that extroverts are best matched with introverts, or people who are open to experience prefer others who are also open to experience. One notable finding is that individuals high in neuroticism (i.e., the personality trait that denotes whether someone tends to experience negative and easily changeable emotions—think Woody Allen’s characters) tend to form the least stable and satisfying unions.

When it comes to values, attitudes, and beliefs, research supports the notion that long-term couples tend to be more similar with each other than random strangers. This is known as the similarity hypothesis, or the “birds of a feather flock together" effect. However, this similarity was not shown to contribute to relationship satisfaction.

This being said, to rigorously test dating companies’ claims, the scientific community would need access to their exact compatibility algorithms, which we currently do not have.

2) Greater pool of partners. As discussed in my previous post, traditional dating is based on physical proximity, with individuals choosing partners with whom they intersect frequently in everyday life, such as at work or school. This offline pool of partners is by definition restrictive. That is, individuals typically encounter relatively small numbers of potential partners from whom they can choose. Further, the diversity of these partners is limited, with, say, teachers meeting other teachers, students from a small town meeting others just like them, etc. This issue is compounded for those looking for love later in life, when their social circles tend to be made predominantly of other couples.

Online dating substantially expands the pool of available partners, allowing singles to connect with greater numbers of people, many of whom they wouldn’t have met in their everyday lives. It can be argued that individuals can make better, more informed choices in a situation where they have lots of diverse options. Rather than choosing whomever is available in physical proximity, they may be able to be more selective and identify potential partners who meet specific criteria.

While having more choices statistically increases the likelihood of identifying desirable partners, it bears noting that having too much choice can negatively affect daters’ mentality. Interview-based research has identified a “kid in a candy store” phenomenon, whereby some online daters report that they are less likely to commit to a relationship and work through hurdles when they know there are always other options easily available.

These two phenomena are not mutually exclusive. It is possible that some daters do find better matches when they have larger pools of partners, whereas others fall prey to the allure of always looking for someone better.

3) Individual differences: age, motivation, and socio-economic status. It is possible that online daters, as a group, are different from the general population in ways that increase their likelihood of establishing successful romantic relationships. Three dimensions of difference are worth noting.

First, online daters tend to be older, with most being in their 30’s, 40’s, and beyond. It is possible that, at this age, people possess greater self-insight (i.e., they know themselves better) and have more defined and mature criteria for potential partners than their younger and less experienced selves. For instance, couples who met in high school or college may change drastically and in opposite directions from each other by the time they reach their 30’s. The choices they made a decade earlier may seem less appealing once maturation has occurred. By virtue of being older, online daters may experience this problem to a lesser extent.

Second, online daters are a self-selected group, who decided to invest time, energy, effort, and often money (for paid sites) into finding a romantic partner. Therefore, their motivation to build satisfying relationships may be higher, leading them to be more committed towards and work harder at their relationships. By contrast, some traditional daters may stumble into relationships that they may not have specifically sought or ardently desired to begin with.

Finally, research shows that online daters tend to be wealthier and more highly educated than traditional daters. Both income and education are factors that are associated with a decreased likelihood of divorce.

Of course, it is possible that some, all, none, or an interaction between these factors contribute to the slight advantage of online dating over traditional dating. What do you think? Are there any other factors that we should consider?

Catalina Toma, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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