Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Online Dating Works for Some and Not Others

New research shows our attitude toward pursuing relationship goals is key.

Key points

  • In the dating world, some people are promotion focused—focused on what they can gain—and some are prevention focused—focused on avoiding a loss.
  • Promotion focused individuals report more success in online dating and tend to find the process of browsing profiles easier.
  • Focusing on possible opportunities and successes may help people better navigate online dating.
99mimimi via pixabay
Source: 99mimimi via pixabay

Dating websites are more popular than ever. About half of never-married U.S. adults have used a dating website. In a recent nationally representative survey of U.S. adults, 12 percent said they had been in a committed relationship with someone they met on a dating site, and one study found that about one-third of marriages that occurred between 2005 and 2012 began online.

But not everyone gets that happy ending. Many users report negative experiences, with about 45 percent of online daters reporting increased frustration and 30 percent reporting increased pessimism about dating. The overwhelming options available in online dating can also make it so that no one seems good enough because there's always someone better on the horizon.

So, who is most likely to enjoy the online dating process and be successful? There are certain obvious features that directly affect one's desirability to potential mates, like physical attractiveness, that make online dating easier. But what about psychological characteristics that affect the online dating experience itself? In a series of studies just published in the journal Personal Relationships, researchers examined how the way we pursue our relationship goals can affect the online dating experience.

Regulatory Focus and Online Dating

When people pursue their goals, they tend to emphasize different things. According to the theory of regulatory focus, people can be focused on what they can gain, or they can be focused on avoiding a potential loss. For example, if you're shopping for a new refrigerator, are you more focused on the cool features of the different models, like smart technology, or are you more focused on avoiding a lemon, and checking out the statistics on the reliability of each model?

In terms of buying products, people who are promotion focused like having a large number of options, whereas people who are prevention focused get overwhelmed with too much choice. People who are promotion focused think more about the potential positive outcomes, so they tend to concentrate on the positive aspects of a product. People who are prevention focused tend to do the opposite, and concentrate on the product's negatives when trying to decide which products to short-list. When it comes to their romantic lives, promotion focused people aim to build a positive relationship, whereas prevention-focused people try to protect their relationships from conflicts or threats.

How does all of this play out in online dating? Promotion focused daters will see all these interesting potential dates with their varied backgrounds and interests and see possibilities. The prevention focused dater, on the other hand, is looking for deal-breakers and focusing on negative qualities to use to eliminate potential dating profiles from the pool. For promotion focused daters, each profile is another potential mate, and another possibility of finding a great relationship. For prevention focused daters, each profile represents another possibly bad date and wasted time.

The Study: Surveying Daters about Their Experiences

In their research, Sue Song and Penelope Lockwood surveyed hundreds of users of online dating websites about their experiences. In order to determine the extent to which participants were promotion or prevention focused when it comes to their romantic relationships, they completed the Regulatory Focus within Relationships Scale. This questionnaire asks respondents to rate their agreement with statements that reflect a promotion focus (e.g., "I often think about how I can achieve a successful relationship") and other statements that reflect a prevention focus (e.g., "In general, I am striving to protect and stabilize my relationships").

The researchers also wanted to get a sense of participants' experiences actually using the websites. So, they asked participants to spend 10 minutes browsing profiles. They rated how engaging and fun they found the experience, and they also rated how easy or difficult it was to browse profiles. Participants were also asked to rate how successful they felt they were in online dating.

The Study: The Benefits of a Promotion Focused Mindset

The researchers found that the more promotion focused people were, the easier and more engaging they found the experience of profile-browsing. Prevention focus was actually associated with greater engagement and enjoyment, but also with experiencing greater difficulty with the browsing process. So for promotion focused individuals, the browsing experience was generally a very positive one — both fun and easy. For prevention focused people it was still fun, but it wasn't a simple process. In dating profiles, daters put their best foot forward, so searching for potential pitfalls and negative information requires extra effort, making browsing a more difficult task for prevention-focused people.

Regulatory focus also played a role in people's perceptions of dating success. Promotion focus was associated with perceptions of greater success. Prevention focus, on the other hand, was associated with perceiving less success in online dating. Because the researchers only asked daters about their perceived success, it's not clear if regulatory focus was related to actual success in finding a relationship. It's possible that having a promotion focus really does make you more likely to find your soulmate. The ease with which promotion focused daters experienced the browsing process may have allowed them to spend more time searching for mates and their focus on the positive could make them more open to going on dates.

On the other hand, it's also possible that their focus on the positive merely caused them to believe they were successful. They may have focused more on their positive interactions and good dates, rather than their failures, even if they were no more likely to find a relationship. Either way, their attitude seems to have benefitted them.

So you may get more out of online dating if you're the type of person who focuses on opportunities and successes, rather than the flawed profiles of your fellow daters and bad dates.

More from Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today