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Why You Should Ask Your Friends and Family to Set You Up

Research shows that online dating is an inefficient way to find a partner.

Source: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Online dating, including mobile app dating, has become commonplace — 1 in 10 Americans have used it at some point. If you have not tried it yourself, I bet you know plenty of people who have. Twenty-two percent of heterosexual partners who started dating between 2007 and 2009 met online, second only to meeting through friends. A third of marriages in the U.S. since 2005 were initiated online. Although more recent data is not available, we could expect that these numbers are even higher in 2018. A take-home message: You definitely can meet your partner online.

It's no wonder our relatives, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances have mostly stopped playing matchmakers: Why get involved when there is such an abundance of options for singles nowadays? Psychological science can provide answers. Available research suggests that online/app dating is not the best way to find a significant other. Using a nationally representative survey of 4,002 adults, Aditi Paul found that couples who met online were less likely to be married, compared to the ones who met offline. Also, both married and unmarried couples that started their relationships online were more likely to break up over a three-year follow-up period. Here are more reasons to reconsider exclusively relying on online/app dating:

1. Online dating is inefficient.

Duke professor of psychology and economics Dan Ariely reported in 2007 that online daters spent approximately five hours a week looking through profiles, and seven hours writing and responding to emails. (These were “traditional” online daters, not app users.) In his sample, online daters spent almost seven hours online for one in-person encounter! A more recent study found that fully one-third of all online daters never met up with someone they connected with online, and three-quarters of online daters never entered a relationship that started online.

Mobile dating apps might fare even worse, according to Zhang and Yasseri, who analyzed 19 million messages exchanged between 400,000 daters. Almost half of the messages were never reciprocated. A typical mobile “conversation” happened over 11 days and included 15 messages. Only 1.4 percent of conversations resulted in a phone-number exchange, suggesting that an extremely small number of app exchanges led to a face-to-face meeting.

2. The paradox of choice is that more is not always better.

In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz reviewed years of his and other scientists’ research to conclude that while increasing choice is generally good, having too much choice leads to many negative outcomes.

The sheer number of online/app profiles can be overwhelming, even if we don't recognize it. Experimental studies showed that online daters who were choosing from a bigger set of options spent more time browsing, were less satisfied with their choice a week after making it, and were more likely to change their mind. Some daters might even get so overwhelmed with the number of options that they experience choice overload and paralysis, resulting in the avoidance of making any decision at all. A famous experiment illustrates this idea: Grocery-store shoppers who were choosing from 24 flavors of jam were more likely to try one, but 10 times less likely to buy, compared to shoppers who were choosing among 6 flavors. A parallel study found that women who participated in a speed-dating event with 9-14 men were 40 percent more likely to express an interest in seeing at least one of them again, compared to those who met 15-21 men. Searching for romantic partners is looking more and more like shopping for jam.

Ellison and colleagues conducted interviews with online daters who admitted that they were reluctant to date just one person when there were so many choices. An extensive amount of research supports the investment model of developing relationships: People who have fewer alternatives are more likely to commit, are more satisfied with their relationships, and are less likely to break up. Given that most online daters perceive that choice is limitless, they might be less inclined to commit to one partner and less willing to work on that relationship when things get hard.

The paradox of choice might explain why the apparent explosion of romantic choices with online/app dating has not brought about more dating satisfaction or higher marriage rates. Believing that there is a limitless choice of potential mates just waiting to be discovered makes us more picky and indecisive, less satisfied with the person we chose, and less likely to commit to a partner. We are all playing one big game of musical chairs, with a little payoff.

3. We actually don't know what we like.

Humans are terrible at predicting who we will like in person. A recent study by Eastwick and Hunt, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, revealed that people who seem very good “on paper” do not necessarily inspire a connection in person, especially as you spend more time with them. Unlike internet shopping for goods that can be described in terms of concrete attributes (like hair dryers or puzzles), romantically “clicking” with someone in person is more like realizing you like a certain soup or beer more than others. All you can discern online is what ingredients go into that soup, telling you very little about the chance you will enjoy the taste in real life. It is no wonder, then, that most people who started communicating online like their dates less after the first face-to-face meeting.

A bigger point is that we don’t know ourselves very well at all. It turns out that sometimes our friends, family, and colleagues might know us better than we know ourselves. Maybe it is time to ask them?

4. It’s easy to misrepresent oneself online.

How honest are online/app daters? Between 50 and 81 percent admitted misrepresenting parts of their profile, although most untruths were relatively minor (for example, exaggerating one’s height by an inch or posting a three-year-younger selfie). In a 2016 online dating study by Drouin and colleagues, only 26 percent of participants reported being always honest, and 0 percent believed that the others were completely honest. Even more troubling, 54 percent of online daters felt that someone else seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile in a 2013 nationally representative survey. Dating is hard enough when you know who you are dealing with; it is even harder when you cannot trust what people say about themselves!

5. Less attractive (visually and financially) people fare particularly badly online.

Most online daters tend to “shoot for the stars": They contact the most attractive and highest income individuals at overwhelmingly higher rates than everybody else, regardless of their own social desirability. This leads to a small number of daters (especially attractive women) being inundated with messages and possibly checking out. Most online daters seem to be focused on contacting the beautiful and the rich, even if the response rate is low. Just like playing slot machines, the game never ends, and there is always a chance that the next person will respond. The founder of OK Cupid, Christian Rudder, explains why this might happen: “In a bar, it’s self-correcting. You see ten guys standing around one woman, maybe you don’t walk over and try to introduce yourself. Online, people have no idea how ‘surrounded’ a person is. And that creates a shitty situation.”

Unfortunately, the situation is particularly bad for people who are not perceived as highly socially desirable, so that they might have an even smaller chance to meet a mate online than offline. Short men and overweight women were the least likely to get contacted in a 2009 study of online daters by Hitsch and colleagues. They also found that 57 percent of men and 23 percent of women never received a single message. Online browsing of profiles promotes focus on qualities that are easy to evaluate and search for (like looks, education, income), and people whose strengths are less explicit (like kindness, sense of humor, emotional stability) can get left behind.

6. Online sites don’t have an incentive to match you with a long-term partner.

Let’s face it: Online dating sites and mobile apps don’t have an economic incentive to match you with the love of your life. For each such match, they lose either two paying customers and/or two members bringing in advertising revenue. As Eli Finkel and his colleagues discuss in detail in their 2012 review of online dating, sites’ explicit or implicit matching algorithms have not proven to be better at pairing people than other means of finding partners.

Online/app dating is here to stay. It is a good way to test your dating chops, especially if you have been out of practice for a while, or if your life affords few opportunities to meet new people. But when you are ready to find a relationship more efficiently, you might get offline and ask your friends and family to set you up. In the words of Finkel: “You can assess compatibility better in 10 minutes of face-to-face time than in 100 hours of profile browsing.”

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