In the quest to find romance, more of us have turned to online dating. Once stigmatized as a venue for the desperate, online dating has become a normal part of the mating game. A recent survey of 19,000 people who married between 2005 and 2012 found that 35 percent of these new couples met online, with about half of those meeting through an online dating site (Cacioppo et al., 2013).
How can these sites help you find romance, and what pitfalls should you be aware of?
Access to more people and more types of people. The most obvious benefit of these websites is that they provide easy access to thousands of potential dates. This can be especially beneficial for people who don’t have a large social circle. In addition to the sheer number of people you can meet, many sites provide an avenue for meeting like-minded people. There are dating sites devoted to particular religious groups, like Christian Mingle or JDate, for example, as well as sites that cater to gay and lesbian daters. (Rosenfeld & Thomas, 2012).
You know where people stand. Unlike other social venues, on an online dating site, you can be fairly certain that everyone you meet is single and looking. This removes a lot of the ambiguity that you face when you meet an interesting person at a work event or a party.
You can break free from traditional gender roles. Because of the ease and relative anonymity of online dating sites, we may take more risk by reaching out to people we would not approach in person. And even though men generally contact women more than vice versa on these sites, research has shown that a sizable minority of women do reach out to men they find desirable online, suggesting that these sites allow some women to overcome traditional gender norms that cast them in a passive role of waiting to be approached (Scharlott & Christ, 1995).
It can be good for shy people. Shy or socially anxious individuals often have difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships (Alden & Taylor, 2004; Davila & Beck, 2002). Research suggests that those who are socially anxious (Green, 2001) or introverted (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2002; Rice & Markey, 2009) feel more comfortable communicating online. These individuals may have an easier time approaching people and opening up online. Thus, it is not surprising that shy people are more likely to look for romance on dating sites (Scharlott & Christ, 1995; Ward & Tracey, 2004).
Too many options can be a bad thing. As discussed, one benefit of online dating sites is access to hundreds, even thousands of potential mates—but having all those options is not always a great thing. A large body of literature on decision-making shows that, in general, when we have too many choices available to us, we’re less satisfied with any one choice (Schwartz, 2004).
Having no choices can lead to misery, but too many options can overwhelm and lead you to worry that you’ve chosen wrong. You can feel confident in your decision about which car to buy when there are only three under consideration, but if there are hundreds, you’ll constantly second-guess yourself and wonder if you could have done better.
The same principle applies to online dating: The sheer number of potential partners creates abundant choice. So if one dater doesn’t fit the bill, there are hundreds more who could be better. But this can also lead you to pass up on potential dates because with all those options, you can't help but think, "There must be someone better out there."
Online dating sites can thus foster an attitude in which potential mates are objectified like products on a store shelf, rather than people (Finkel et al., 2012).
Profiles provide limited information. Online profiles are missing vital information you can only glean in person (Finkel et al., 2012), so it can be difficult to know if you’re really compatible with someone based solely on what they have shared on a dating site. Research shows that people spend their time on dating sites searching criteria such as income and education, and physical attributes like height and body type, when what they really need is information about the actual experience of interacting with and getting to know the person on the other end of the profile (Frost et al., 2008).
In addition, when we read vague information about someone, we mentally fill in the blanks with specific details that may be incorrect (Norton & Frost, 2007). For example, when you read in a man’s profile that he’s a movie buff, you might think that's something you have in common, but when you get to talking about movies on your date you realize that you’re a foreign film aficionado, while he’s obsessed with horror flicks. One study of online daters found that most viewed each other as less similar, and liked each other less, afterward, compared to before their offline dates (Norton et al., 2007).
The sites can put too much focus on physical attractiveness. It is well documented that physical attractiveness is a major factor in romantic attraction, especially initial attraction (Sprecher, 1989). Not surprisingly, physically attractive people are more successful at online dating (Hitsch et al., 2005).
But in real life, after we get to know someone and like their personality, we begin to find them more physically appealing as well (Kniffin & Wilson, 2004). Making a quick decision based on an online photo doesn’t allow for this slower development of physical attraction and may cause us to dismiss potential mates to whom we could become attracted.
There's pressure for things to turn romantic quickly. One benefit of online dating is that you know those on the site are single and looking, which reduces ambiguity. But this also creates pressure quickly to turn your online connection into something romantic, rather than letting romantic feelings develop more slowly.
When you meet someone in the context of an online dating site, the stage is set to look for an immediate romantic connection—and to abandon the effort if there’s no spark. This is only exacerbated by the emphasis on physical attractiveness created by online dating profiles.
Romantic relationships often do develop slowly, rather than taking off from instant mutual attraction. Stanford University’s “How Couples Meet and Stay Together Survey” queried a nationally representative sample of adults to determine how and when they met their current romantic partner (Rosenfeld & Reuben, 2011). In my own analysis of this data, I examined the age at which survey respondents met their current partner and compared this to the age at which they became romantically involved, to get a rough sense of how long it took couples to go from first meeting to a romantic relationship.
I found that those who met their partners via online dating sites became romantically involved significantly sooner (an average of two-and-a-half months) than those who met in other ways (an average of one-and-a-half years). This suggests that online dating sites don’t facilitate slowly finding love the way that we often do offline.
It could become a crutch. As mentioned earlier, those who are introverted or shy may find online dating more palatable than other ways of looking for love. But if we choose to focus only on online dating, because it’s safer, we could miss out on other opportunities to meet people.
For more on misconceptions about online dating, read my post on 4 Myths about Online Dating.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter.
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