When You Can Date Everyone, Can You Be Happy With Anyone?

New research on romance and the choice overload effect.

Posted Aug 21, 2016

Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock
Source: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock

Perhaps the most appealing feature of online dating is its efficiency. It enables singles, at the click of a button, to connect with other individuals interested in pursuing romantic relationships. Obtaining first dates via online dating also tends to be easy, precisely because users are by default interested in exploring their romantic options. By contrast, traditional dating requires much more effort: It requires people to maintain active social lives, hobbies, and activities just to meet other single people. Even then, it is often difficult to ascertain new acquaintances’ interest in romance or to progress to a first date.

But does the efficiency of online dating come at a psychological cost? Anecdotal reports from interview studies suggest that it might.

Many online daters, upon finding themselves connected with scores of potential partners, report feeling like “a kid in a candy store,” eager to explore their options and go on as many dates as possible. Their interest in choosing one person (if they seek a monogamous relationship) and sticking with that partner diminishes. Similarly, some online daters report a tendency to discard dates who exhibit any discernible flaws because there are so many possible replacements—the “grass is always greener” phenomenon. Finally, some online daters develop a belief that they can find their ideal match or soul mate if they are willing to go through the many options at their fingertips. (Lots of research, however, shows that a belief in soul mates is quite antithetical to romantic happiness).

How does the bounty of romantic connections provided by online dating affect daters’ satisfaction, and happiness in their relationships? How does it shape their attitudes towards potential partners, their beliefs that they will find a suitable match, their dating trajectory, and their eventual relationship success? These are important questions and constitute an entire program of research for scholars of online relationships like myself.

My graduate student, Jonathan D’Angelo, and I began our foray into the research by asking a foundational question about how the availability of potential partners in online dating affects daters’ satisfaction with whoever they choose for a first date, even before that first date takes place: Does having lots of options affect online daters’ evaluation of a potential partner?

Our investigation was guided by the choice overload effect, a well-validated theory in behavioral economics. The theory argues that, despite the fact that people like and want choice in most situations, they are paradoxically less satisfied with whatever they choose when they have a large pool of options. This is the case because more options produce more opportunities for regret—the “what if’s” of discarded alternatives. In perhaps the best known study on this topic, shoppers at a California grocery store given a choice of 24 jams were less likely to buy any jam and were less satisfied with the jam they ultimately chose if they did, than shoppers who were given a choice of just six jams. This pattern was replicated with many purchase items—pens, chocolates, cars—and we thought it might also emerge when people choose among potential romantic partners.

To test the idea, we created our own dating service at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: BadgerDate, adorably named (we thought) after our university’s mascot. We then recruited about 100 undergraduates who were single and interested in dating and asked them to use BadgerDate to identify potential matches. That’s where we introduced the experimental manipulation: Participants were connected with either 24 matches or with just six (six being a subset of the 24) and were asked to pick one person to go on a date with. Further, we told half of our participants that they could not change their minds about the person they selected, while the other half were told that they could. A week later, we invited our participants back to the lab and asked them to rate their satisfaction with the person they initially selected.

Results were consistent with the choice overload effect: Online daters who were given the larger pool of choices were significantly less satisfied with their selection than daters given the smaller pool of choices. Moreover, daters who were given the larger pool and thought they could change their mind about their selection registered the greatest drop in satisfaction over the course of the week. The more time they had to think about it, the less keen they were on their date. The reason for this satisfaction deficit remains to be fully explored (we are working on it), but it seems that online daters whose choices appear to be abundant, because there are lots of them and they are reversible, may be left to wonder what else is out there, and become regretful when other, alternative options are left unexplored.

Source: Catalina Toma

Our study is small and restricted to college students, but it reveals important dynamics in online daters’ psychology—more choice might not necessarily lead to more satisfying dates—and has some design implications that dating websites might consider. The majority of these sites currently connect daters with all of their possible matches. This often results in large numbers—dozens and even hundreds in densely populated areas (geography matters). As a design decision, it might be wise for these sites to introduce a certain amount of “desirable difficulty” in their clients' ability to identify potential partners. They might restrict the number of matches presented to daters in any given search session, or encourage daters to use advanced search criteria that would naturally restrict their pool of matches. (In fact, eHarmony, the most successful website in terms of generating long-term relationships, does already limit the number of matches by presenting users with only five or so matches on any given day.)

Read our full study here.

And please share your own experiences: How has the availability of potential partners affected your online dating behaviors? If you were connected with many people, did you find yourself eager to explore these options and, if so, up to what point? If you were connected with few people, did you find yourself more willing to invest in them?