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Do You Find Online Dating Confusing? This May Be Why

Is the amount of choice in online dating a good thing?

  • Fizkes/Shutterstock
    Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

    When deciding what to wear, are you happier when you have lots of clothes to choose between or when you can only choose between your few remaining clothes, which are not in the laundry?

Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

Initially, it may seem that the luxury of a larger amount of choice may increase our satisfaction. However, the research suggests that we are ultimately less satisfied when presented with a larger choice. This has been referred to as the choice overload effect and was investigated by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. They found that when consumers were presented with twenty-four as opposed to six flavours of jam, the group presented with the larger number were less satisfied and less likely to purchase the jam compared to the group presented with the smaller number (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). The choice overload effect has been demonstrated in the purchase of numerous other products too, and leads to decreased satisfaction with the item selected, a decrease preference strength, which is how much people prefer the item selected compared to alternatives, and even more disappointment with the item purchased.

Why is a larger choice not a good thing?

Discarding more choices means that we have to think more about the ‘what might have been’ options had we chosen something else. Quite simply, the larger our choice of options, then the more ‘what might have been’ thinking we have to do. This has been referred to as counterfactual thinking. Engaging in more counterfactual thinking after making a choice means that we ultimately feel less satisfied with the choice we have made.

Secondly, having to select from a larger choice means that we have to think more about why we discarded so many alternatives compared to simple choices between just one thing and another. Furthermore, if we have to justify our choice to another person, then discarding more options involves a longer justification than if we are justifying our choice between just two alternatives.

Decision reversibility

Most consumer goods we purchase today can be returned for an exchange or refund. However, the opportunity to change our minds following a purchase, again leads to lower levels of satisfaction – an effect demonstrated by Daniel Gilbert and Jane Ebert (2002) in a study where people were given the opportunity to change their minds about the purchase of photographs (Gilbert & Ebert, 2002).

Online dating

Given that online dating offers users a large number of potential partners, especially in more densely populated areas, might it also be the case that choice overload and choice reversibility are an issue with online dating too? Of course, selecting a date should not be the same as selecting a brand of coffee or an item of clothing, and therefore choice overload and reversibility may not have an effect.

In order to investigate this issue, Jonathan D’Angelo and Catalina Toma (2016) assessed people’s satisfaction rates in online dating situations where the number of potential dates available was large, and also situations where people had the opportunity to change their minds over the date they had selected (D’Angelo & Toma, 2016). They predicted that daters’ satisfaction rates would be affected by choice overload and the ability to change their minds after about a week.

They recruited 152 participants interested in meeting a romantic partner, who were told that they were helping to test a new dating site. The participants were required to attend a laboratory on two occasions one week apart, where they completed a survey about demographic and personality information, which they were told would be used to match them with potential partners. One group of participants were presented with 6 (small choice set) and a second group with 24 (large choice set) profiles of potential partners and instructed to select one person with whom they would like to go on a date. Within each group, half were told they could change their mind after a week (reversible condition) and the other half were told they could not (irreversible condition). After this, the investigators measured participants’ self-reported satisfaction with their decision choices. In the time between week one and week two, participants were allowed to access the dating site at their discretion to review their date choice. After one week had passed, participants were asked to review their choices and completed a further measure of their satisfaction.

Satisfaction was measured with a series of items such as:

  • How much do you like the individual whose profile you selected?
  • How satisfied are you with the dater you chose?
  • How much are you looking forward to contacting this individual?

D’Angelo and Toma found that after one week, participants in the large choice group were less satisfied with their choice of date compared to those in the small choice group, illustrating that choice overload has an effect in online dating, too. However, they found no difference to satisfaction ratings between those able to change their minds about their choice (reversibility), and those who were not able to do this.

When they compared the satisfaction ratings of those who had chosen from the large set of 24 profiles and who could reverse their decision, with the remainder of participants, the researchers found that this group was the least satisfied overall. Furthermore, they also found that after one week, this group reported the biggest drop in satisfaction ratings. This again demonstrates that choice overload has an effect here.

Finally, more participants in the large choice group who were offered the chance to reverse their decisions actually took advantage of this option compared with those in the small choice group. In fact, no participants in the small choice group chose to change their partner at time two, whereas 13% of participants in the large choice set did so.

Is online dating different?

The findings from the D’Angelo and Toma study would seem to suggest quite convincingly that choice overload lowers satisfaction in online dating, and encourages daters to reverse their choices. However, in numerous other ways, online dating is very different from the purchase of everyday items such as clothing, furniture or a new car.

While we may feel that we can change our mind about a person after a few dates, romantic commitment in longer-term relationships is obviously rather different, and changing our minds or seeking someone better is not an easy option. In such circumstances, we accept what we have and justify or rationalise to ourselves why we have made the choice we have. The choice we make is one that we justify to ourselves or others on more than one occasion: "I like my partner because …."

In addition, choosing a romantic partner involves a degree of experience, which we gain over time and from previous experience, and therefore it is possible that we use different choice heuristics (methods or criteria) than we use when choosing other items.

Online dating may be different, but it is worth considering the effect that the abundance of choice can influence our judgments.


D’Angelo, J. D. & Toma, C. L. (2016) ‘There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea: The Effects of Choice Overload and Reversibility on Online Daters’ Satisfaction With Selected Partners’, Media Psychology, 20 (1), 1-27.

Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. (2002) ‘Decisions and revisions: the affective forecasting ofchangeable outcomes’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 503–514.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000) ‘When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995–1006.

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