Online dating sites promise to use science to match you with the love of your life. Many of them even go beyond the matching process to help you confront the complex world of finding (and keeping) partners. eHarmony provides its users with advice on dating, relationships, and—of course—plenty of diagnostic quizzes. Although these online dating sites attract millions of customers and billions of dollars, scientific study reveals that they cannot possibly come through on these promises. In a recent comprehensive analysis, Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel and collaborators claim that online dating sites not only don’t improve, but may even hurt those seeking happiness in their relationships.
It was natural enough that online dating services would develop and evolve over the past two decades. The growth of social media encourages internet-based connections with the people we know and love and the people we would like to get to know and love. We are busier than ever at work, our jobs require that we either travel or move to new cities, and as a result, we don’t have the luxury to rely on finding a partner through connections with family or friends. Online dating sites help fill the gap that our busy lives have created in our search for connection.
Online dating services are not only convenient, but they also have the apparent advantage of using systematic methods to match us with the partner of a lifetime. Their diagnostic tests seem to key in on the fundamental essence of our personalities, ensuring that we’ll be paired with the one person in the world whose fundamental essence will resonate to ours. They also promise to improve the odds of our finding that person by providing us with access to large numbers of potential romantic partners; more than we would ever meet on our own.
To find out how best to use online services, we first have to examine their strengths and weaknesses. Finkel and his collaborators critique the three main areas in which online dating services claim to be superior to the offline, or old-fashioned, way of meeting people in person. Those areas are:
Let’s examine each of these areas in more detail. First, a caveat—they did not look into sites such as Craiglist, sex or hookup sites, infidelity sites, sites for arranging group dates, social networking sites (such as Facebook) or online video games (such as World of Warcraft or Sims)
Having the opportunity to examine the profiles of hundreds, if not thousands, of potential matches must surely be an advantage, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to online dating, there is no safety in numbers. Because you’re not meeting actual people, but instead examining their profiles, you’re not going through the normal give-and-take that occurs when people meet and talk for the first time.
The decision-making processes we go through when we’re examining online profiles are also different than those we use in offline situations. As you flip through those profiles, you’re not necessarily pausing and studying each one as carefully as you would a real person. Some feature might pop out at you (particularly appearance) that causes you to think “Next?” When you make a decision about who to establish communication with, it may not be a particularly well-informed one. As Finkel and his colleagues state, you may make “lazy, ill-informed decisions” because you’re selecting from such a large group of potential matches. The mindset you develop in this process can also cause you to think of a romantic partner not as a person but as someone who is easily interchangeable with someone else. Consequently, you may be less likely to commit to the people who you do decide to follow up on because you know there are hundreds of others out there, should this match prove flawed.
Finkel and his co-authors also caution against the false belief that there is a perfect match for you out there in the online universe. If you hold onto the false belief that you need to keep looking until you find that soulmate, you may zip past some otherwise excellent dating prospects.
Because users can engage in extensive online communication (called “Computer Mediated Communication” or CMC), prior to meeting, they form impressions that may or may not correspond to those they eventually make when they see the real person. When their expectation doesn’t match reality, they are then more disappointed than they would be if they had met the person earlier on in the relationship. This process is exacerbated by the tendency that people have to disguise their flaws either by bending the truth or lying outright about their age, their job, their background, or even their marital status. When you meet someone in person, you have nonverbal cues as well as the actual qualities of the person right there in front of you to guide your judgment (the vibes, as it were). That person may lie about some important fact, such as being married, but at least you have plenty of data in front of you on which to base some sort of decision.
Online dating services pride themselves on having developed complex formulas, or algorithms, that will diagnose you and then apply this diagnosis to helping you find the perfect match uniquely qualified to be your ideal romantic partner. However, even if they could come through on their claims (which I’ll examine in a minute), think about the logic of this process. The information you provide about yourself now describes who you are today, but it may have little to do with who you are in 10 or 20 years. People develop in myriad ways throughout their lives, in response to changes within themselves over time and changes in their life circumstances. There is no way that an online personality test can predict how you, or your potential partners, will mature over time. The same can be said for offline matchups as well, but the problem is in what the online sites claim to be able to do. No online personality test can predict with any more certainty how a person will react to life stresses than a real-life encounter and may even be worse. At least when you are talking to a person in real time, your conversation can take you to places that might provide you with relevant data about how they will adapt to future stresses.
Now let’s look at the psychology behind the matching claims. This is where Finkel and his coauthors found the most glaring flaws. The evidence simply doesn’t back up the claims that the predictive formulas these sites develop (and never share publicly) are effective. Among the many problems the psychologists note is the fact that online personality tests don’t necessarily tap into the key factors that will predict who will fall in love, and stay in love, with whom. Some personality tests are particularly subject to the so-called “Barnum effect,” meaning that they provide such a generic assessment that they could apply to anyone. We also don’t know which of an individual’s personality traits best match with those of another. Although personality similarity is more likely to predict relationship success than complementarity (i.e. do opposites attract?), the question is similarity in what? There are many types of similarity, ranging from geographic promixity to political views to scores on measures of introversion-extraversion.
Similarity is also surprisingly difficult to define mathematically. Does similarity mean there is a zero difference between you and the other person on a test score? Or does it mean that your profile maps closely to another person’s? There is also actual similarity and perceived similarity. If you like someone else, you may assume that person is very similar to you. Married partners who are highly intimate presume greater similarity between them than an objective personality score might justify. In much the same way, when you form a favorable impression of someone you meet for the first time, you may also see similarities that wouldn’t show up on an objective test. In an online dating environment, you don’t have a chance to make that leap of faith and assume the person you want to like has the same personality that you do. Lab studies support this observation. People’s actual similarities account for a negligible amount of the degree to which couples feel satisfied with their relationships.
If their money is in their proprietary matching formulas, then, online dating sites don’t seem to be getting a good return on their investment. Finkel and team conclude that “online dating sites have published no research that is sufficiently rigorous or detailed to support the claim that they provide more compatible matches than conventional dating does” (p. 47). When partners do match successfully, this could be due to many other factors than the site’s mathematical formula, not the least of which is random luck. When you have enough people seeking long-term relationships with other people who choose to try a particular online service, the odds are that some of these matches will be successful regardless of which algorithm the site used.
In addition to the three sets of problems outlined here, Finkel and his team point out one inherent limitation of these sites—namely, that to stay in business, they’re better off keeping their customers unmatched. When people pair up, they drop out of the site and no longer need to use its services. However, if these sites never matched people, they wouldn’t stay in business very long. This paradox creates problems, then, but the marketplace pressure to produce satisfied customers may negate these problems somewhat. Online sites cannot, however, prevent lying or involvement by people with a history of substance abuse or violent crime.
By giving people the chance to find happiness in a relationship in ways that modern society doesn’t readily permit through real-world interactions, online dating sites can help people find partners in an efficient manner. To make the best use of the advantages these sites have to offer, though, you’ll need to approach them with caution.
The bottom line: Eight ways to make online dating sites work for you
Online dating isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. Like all social media, to get the most out of the process you just need to use caution, common sense, and even some psychology.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Finkel, E., 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 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612436522