Online dating is increasingly popular, and yet misinformation about the industry abounds. Let’s examine four common myths, and why they're wrong:
1. Everyone is lying.
There is a widespread belief that dating sites are filled with dishonest people trying to take advantage of earnest, unsuspecting singles. Research does show that a little exaggeration in online dating profiles is common.1 But it's common in offline dating as well. Whether online or off, people are more likely to lie in a dating context than in other social situations.2 As I detailed in an earlier post, the most common lies told by online daters concern age and physical appearance. Gross misrepresentations about education or relationship status are rare, in part because people realize that once they meet someone in person and begin to develop a relationship, serious lies are highly likely to be revealed.3
2. Online dating is for the desperate.
There is, surprisingly, still some stigma attached to online dating, despite its general popularity. Many people continue to see it as a last refuge for desperate people who can’t get a date “in real life." Many couples that meet online are aware of this stigma and, if they enter into a serious relationship, may create false cover stories about how they met.4 This choice may play a role in perpetuating this myth because many happy and successful couples that met online don’t share that information with others. And in fact, research suggests that there are no significant personality differences between online and offline daters.5 There is some evidence that online daters are more sensitive to interpersonal rejection, but even these findings have been mixed.6,7 As far as the demographic characteristics of online daters, a large survey using a nationally representative sample of recently married adults found that compared to those who met their spouses offline, those who met online were more likely to be working, Hispanic, or of a higher socioeconomic status—not exactly a demographic portrait of desperate losers.8
3. Online relationships are doomed.
A common belief is that love found online can't last. Because online dating hasn’t been around that long, it’s hard to fully assess the long-term success of relationships that began on the Internet, but two surveys have attempted to do so.
In a study commissioned by dating site eHarmony, Cacciopo and colleagues surveyed a nationally representative sample of 19,131 American adults who were married between 2005 and 2012.8 Over one-third of those marriages began with an online meeting (and about half of those occurred via a dating website). How successful were those marriages? Couples that met online were significantly less likely to get divorced or separated than those who met offline, with 5.96% of online couples and 7.67% of offline couples ending their relationships. Of those who were still married, the couples that met online reported greater marital satisfaction than those who met offline. These results remained statistically significant, even after controlling for year of marriage, gender, age, ethnicity, income, education, religion, and employment status.
However, results of another highly publicized survey suggested that online relationships were less likely to morph into marriages and more likely to break up.9 This survey also used a nationally representative sample of American adults. Researchers polled individuals currently involved in romantic relationships, 2,643 of whom met offline and 280 of whom met online.
How can we reconcile these seemingly conflicting results?
First, the finding that couples that meet online are less likely to get married is based on an inaccurate interpretation of the data. The particular survey analyzed for that paper oversampled homosexual couples, who comprised 16% of the sample.10 The homosexual couples in the survey were more likely to have met online, and naturally, less likely to have gotten married, given that, at least at the time that data were collected, they could not legally do so in most states. The data set used in that paper is publicly available, and my own re-analysis of it confirmed that if the analysis had controlled for sexual orientation, there would be no evidence that couples that met online were less likely to eventually marry.
The statistics behind the finding that the couples that met online were more likely to break up do hold up to scrutiny, but these results are certainly not the last word given the small sample of only 280 couples that met online, as compared to more than 6,000 in the study by Cacioppo and colleagues. So, the findings on longevity are somewhat mixed, with the larger study suggesting that online couples are better off. Either way, hardly evidence that online relationships are doomed to failure.
However, couples that met online do report less support for their relationships from family and friends than those who met via their organic social network, a factor that can lead to relationship problems.11 But similarly discouraging measures of social support for relationships were also reported by couples that met at bars, suggesting that the key variable isn’t so much where they met, but who introduced them and the extent to which their future significant others were already integrated into their existing social circles and/or known by their friends and family prior to the start of the relationship.4 This creates a challenge for those who meet online, but there is some evidence that online couples may nonetheless be happier than their offline counterparts.
4. Match-making algorithms are better than searching on your own.
Some online dating sites, such as eHarmony, use match-making algorithms, in which users complete a battery of personality measures and are then matched with “compatible” mates. A review by Eli Finkel and colleagues found no compelling evidence that these algorithms do a better job of matching people than any other approach.5 According to Finkel, one of the main problems with the match-making algorithms is that they rely primarily on similarity (e.g., both people are extroverts) and complementarity (e.g., one person is dominant and the other is submissive) to match people. But research actually shows that personality trait compatibility does not play a major role in the eventual happiness of couples. What really matters are how the couple will grow and change over time; how they will deal with adversity and relationship conflicts; and the specific dynamics of their interactions with one another—none of which can be measured via personality tests.
The popular dating site OkCupid matches daters based on similarity in their answers to various personality and lifestyle questions. In an experiment, the website misrepresented users’ compatibility with one another, leading people to believe that others were either a 30%, 60%, or 90% match. Sometimes, these displayed match numbers were accurate, other times they were not (e.g., a 30% match was displayed as a 90% match). The results showed that there was almost no difference in the likelihood of users contacting or continuing a conversation with a "real" 90% match or a 30% match "dressed up" to look like a 90% match. This data caused OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder to conclude that “the mere myth of compatibility works just as well as the truth.”12
Learn more about the pros and cons of online dating: "What You Need to Know before You Try Online Dating"
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
1 Hall, J. A., Park, N., & Cody, M. J. (2010). Strategic misrepresentation in online dating: The effects of gender, self-monitoring, and personality traits. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(1) 117-135. doi: 10.1177/0265407509349633
2 Toma, C. L., Hancock, J. T., & Ellison, N. B. (2008). Separating fact from fiction: An examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1023-1036. doi: 10.1177/0146167208318067
3 Rowatt, W. C., Cunningham, M. R., & Druen, P. B. (1999). Deception to get a date. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(11), 1228-1242. doi: 10.1177/01461672982411009
4 Sassler, S., & Miller, A. J. (2014). The ecology of relationships: Meeting locations and cohabitors’ relationship perceptions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407514525886 Advanced online publication.
5 Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S.. (2012) Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 3-66. doi: 10.1177/1529100612436522
6 Blackhart, G. C., Fitzpatrick, J., & Williamson, J. (2014). Dispositional factors predicting use of online dating sites and behaviors related to online dating. Computers in Human Behavior, 33113-118. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.022
7 Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2007). Who visits online dating sites? Exploring some characteristics of online daters. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 849–852. doi:10.1089/cpb.2007.9941
8 Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G. C., Ogburn, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (25), 10135–10140. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1222447110
9 Paul, A. (2014). IS online better than offline for meeting partners? Depends: Are you looking to marry or to date? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(10), 664-667. doi:10.1089/cyber.2014.0302.
10 Rosenfeld, M. J., & Thomas, R. J. (2011). How Couples Meet and Stay Together, Wave 3 version 3.04. Machine Readable Data File. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Libraries (http://data.stanford.edu/hcmst).
11 Felmlee, D., Sprecher, S., & Bassin, E. (1990). The Dissolution of Intimate Relationships: A Hazard Model. Social Psychology Quarterly, 53(1), 13-30.
12 Rudder, C. (July 28, 2014). We experiment on human beings! Oktrends. http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/we-experiment-on-human-beings/
Teaser photo credit: "Online romance" by Don Hankins at flickr.com (Creative Commons)