Finding Love on the Internet: Does it Work?
The odds are good, in online dating, but how good are the goods?
Posted Jun 09, 2012
A very thorough scientific analysis of online dating was recently published by Finkel, et al. (2012). In an interesting 64 page article, they overview the history of matchmaking, social psychological theories of relationships, and compare online dating to conventional dating. The authors ask some important questions. For example, is online dating different than conventional offline dating? Is it better? And, can mathematical algorithms create good love matches? These are ideal questions for social psychologists. They pull on years of social psychological theory and they are testable. In other words, they are empirical questions.
Online dating is not as new as I thought it was. Finkel et al. (2012) say that as early as 1959 a class of Stanford math students created a final project called “Happy Families Planning Services.” They programmed an IBM 650 computer to pair up 49 men and 49 women. Couples were computer matched based on their differences on a survey questionnaire of demographic data, personality traits, and interests. Though never developed beyond a class project, this computer matching program did result in one marriage.
By 1966, Look Magazine, featured a cover article on a new “campus craze” called computer dating. Calling it punch card dating (does anyone remember punch cards?), Gene Shalit, describes at least 3 computer dating entrepreneurial endeavors (http://blog.modernmechanix.com/boy-girl-computer/#more). In the first one, Harvard undergraduates, Jeff Tarr and Baughn Morrill began Operation Match by sending questionnaires to several Ivy League colleges. The questionnaire consisted of 135 questions about your ideal boy or your ideal girl. They were swamped with replies, about 8,000. Because computers were huge and expensive, Tarr rented ( instead of buying) computer space on and IBM 7094 for $100 an hour. By summer, applications exceeded 90,000 and were coming in from all over the country.
Two other computer dating services are mentioned in the 1966 Look Magazine article. DeWan from MIT started Contact by renting a Honeywell 200 at 3am when the rates were lowest. He processed 11,000 applicants at $4 apiece. The other computing data service was started at the University of Wisconsin by Weisfield and Rappaport and called Scientific Evaluation of Compatibility Services (SECS). The Look article also includes some humorous, playful, and insightful anecdotes. Weisfield said that his proudest moment was when his service, SECS, became a four letter word. A Northwestern student commented that the date he got “didn’t have much upstairs but what a staircase!” And, a female student thought that boys were more interested a girl’s figure than her academic interests on a questionnaire. One final insightful comment was made by a professor. He said that perhaps the most important function of the computer dating service was letting boys know who was available.
By the mid-sixties computers were being used for the purpose of matching thousands of potential romantic partners. However, the businesses never fully took off. Computers were large and expensive. Computer access was limited to universities and industry. And, there was no easy way to communicate with applicants. It really wasn’t until the Internet that online dating exploded.
One more early computer dating service warrants mention, Project Cupid. In 1970, a few leading psychologists got together to develop a non-profit dating program that would also serve as a research data center. Interestingly, the project was spurred by a very generous donation from a university trustee whose daughter was having a hard time finding appropriate dates. Anyway, after putting together the heads of some of the best relationship experts in the field (George Levinger, Elaine Hatfield, and Zick Rubin and others), along with substantial funding, these experts came away from several meetings with “little confidence in their ability to devise satisfactory matches” or matches better than the clients could make on their own (Finkle, et al. 2012).
According to Finkel, et al. (2012) computer dating services really took off when Match.com launched in 1995. By this time, computers were smaller, less expensive, easier to use, and readily available. Software was more powerful and a platform exited for communicating with and between applicants. Match.com and niche dating sites, like JDate, offered singles opportunities to post, browse, and connect. Finkel, et al. (2007) call this the first generation of computer dating. But, the online dating scene changed dramatically with the launching of eHarmony in 2000. Going beyond previous dating sites, eHarmony claimed to provide compatible partners. Through the use of personality profiles and scientific processes, they screened matches and provided you with optimal partners. Perfect Match and Chemistry also provide matching services. Today, online dating has gone even further, beyond the first generation of browse and connect sites, the second generation of matching sites to a third generation of mobile dating apps. A dater can now search their smart phone from their car and find available dates nearby through GPS. For example, Meet Moi, formed in 2007, and linked to Facebook in 2010 will alert you on your smart phone when a potential date is near.
After an overview of the historical origins of online dating, Finkel, et al. (2007) begin to question the services of contemporary online dating services. What do they provide? How effective are these services? To approach these questions, the authors organize the material into 3 main categories: access, communication, and matching. Access refers to finding and evaluating potential dating partners. Communication refers to the initial electronic interaction on a specific dating site prior to the actual face-to-face meeting. The authors call this CMC or Computer Mediated Communication. And, matching refers to the mathematical algorithm or scientific model used to pair up potential romantic partners.
Access. There is no doubt that computer dating has improved access. Traditional dating was limited to one’s circle of friends, school, or work environments. This is a relatively small pool. The explosion of the Internet now gives the user access to potential dates she would normally never meet. They may be separated geographically or they may run with different circles of friends. Computer dating sites give daters exponentially more potential partners. According to Finkel, et al. (2012) 30% of 7 billion people on the planet now use the Internet. Translated into potential dates, they say this gives the user access to nearly 2 billion other people. This is unprecedented historically. Nobody needs that many dates but Internet dating definitely improves the odds. And, now it is the primary game in town. Just like employment seekers look to the Internet and sites like Monster for jobs, romance seekers are almost forced to deal with the Internet for dates. Computer dating is now mainstream and socially acceptable. So, how does this new match making service change connecting and is it an improvement?
Communication. Online dating sites allow potential partners to communicate electronically before they ever meet. After photographs and basic information are shared, potential partners have an opportunity to communicate through e-mail or instant messaging. Individuals browse profiles and select potential dates. After selecting someone, they can communicate through winks, instant messaging, or live chat with webcams. Clearly, an electronic introduction through a post is different than being introduced by friends. How a person presents themself and who they think they might like, may be very different than what their friends know about them. And, browsing through posts can be likened to shopping. The post, then, becomes an important form of self-expression and advertising.
Matching. Some online dating sites go beyond browsing and connecting. They offer to match you with that special someone. For example, the designers of eHarmony state that “after three years of research and development, they successfully identified the key dimensions of personality that predicted compatibility and the potential for long term relationship success.” (http://www.eharmony.com/about/eharmony/). They are also “committed to investigating and understanding what makes long-term relationships successful by conduction ongoing, rigorous scientific research to keep the matching model up-to-date and relevant for domestic and international markets.”
To access e-Harmony and other matching sites, applicants are asked to provide self-report data before they are matched. Lengthy questionnaires of standard demographic data like age, sex, education, religion, and income are completed. These are followed by questions about personality such as self-concept, athleticism, warmth, interests, etc. Finally, the applicant provides a photo, pays a fee, and is matched by computer algorithm to compatible partners.
The assumption behind online matching sites is similarity. This is explicitly stated by Gonzaga, eHarmony’s director of research, in his 2007 publication (Gonzaga, Campos, and Bradbury, 2007). The idea that similar people are compatible is an age old assumption of match makers. Certain personality variables, like extraversion, neuroticism, and openness are reliable and consistent over time. What is unknown is how matching services statistically weight and combine these variables. Their matching algorithms are secret. eHarmony, for example, provides no published research on the reliability or validity of their scales or their matching model. For this reason, their matching model cannot be tested and replicated by other scientists. In an attempt to actually scientifically test the partner similarity hypothesis , Gonzaga, et al. (2007) compared couples and randomly paired individuals. Even they concluded that “partners did not have more similar personalities than randomly paired couples.”
Predicting long-term relationship satisfaction is extremely difficult, if even possible. One problem is that couples operate as dyads. They work as teams and the quality of the interaction cannot be measured from two separate personality inventories. Success over time will also be determined by what type of crises couples face (e.g. serious illness) and how well they cope with their crises as a couple. The quality of the interaction and how well they cope together can only be known after the relationship beings.
Given that matching web sites do not share their algorithms and that they do not provide scientific research that can be replicated (both scientific standards), it cannot be safely assumed that their matching processes are scientifically valid. Which brings up other questions, like advertising claims and safety to the public.
Legal, Ethical, and Scientific Implications. The Internet has revolutionized our lives. It has changed the way we work, the way we bank, and even the way we meet lovers. No doubt online dating sites have hugely expanded the field of potential dates. They have definitely improved access to potential partners. This is a valuable service. But, can computer dating really improve the quality of matches? This has implications for public health and emotional well-being as stated by Finkel, et al (2012). If computer dating can really improve martial satisfaction than this is a huge boon for public health. Imagine all the happy couples who can avoid ugly divorces and years of heart break. Children who will be saved the agony of their parents divorces, fights, yelling and relocation to new communities. Even money saved by avoiding litigation and relocation. If these websites can accomplish this, this is a huge contribution to public health.
Because computer matching services don’t publish research, their models can’t be independently replicated. Even though they claim to be scientific, there is insufficient evidence to support these claims. Choosing a long term partner is a serious matter. It is at least as serious as a taking a pill. But, compare this to the process of getting a drug to market. Pharmaceutical companies take years and spend millions on research and development. A drug is put through rigorous clinical trials and subjected to review by scientific committees and government agencies before it can be released to the public. I would think a business claiming to provide long term satisfying matches by a scientific process should be just as closely scrutinized.
Advantages and disadvantages to online dating services. Online dating sites have advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is access. Online dating has dramatically increased the field of eligible partners. Daters have the opportunity to meet more people than ever. MeetMoi claims 64,245 people are meeting today. One of the limitations of online dating is that it relies on self-report data. Daters can present themselves as younger, richer or better looking than they are. In the best of worlds, self-report personality inventories could be used to determine who is lying and screen for potential problems such as substance abuse or mental health issues. Still, some websites are making unrealistic promises. To the best of my knowledge, no magical algorithm exists that can create perfect matches. Furthermore, if this were the case, after ten years why aren't there any published scientific studies with follow-up data? And of course, there is safety to consider. Because online introductions are now mainstream and widely used, safety must be considered. eHarmony offers a full page on safe dating suggestions. At any rate, computer dating is here and it is mainstream. In the end, online dating's biggest contribution may be exactly what Dr. Snyder of MIT was quoted as saying in the Look Magazine 1966 article, it lets you know who is available.
Finkle, E. J., Eastwick. P. W. , Karney, B. R. , Reis, H. T. & Sprecher, S. (2012) Retrieved from
Gonzaga, G. C., Campos, B., Bradbury, T. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 93(1), Jul 2007, 34-48.
Shalit, G. (1966, February 22). Boy…girl…computer. New dating
craze sweeps the campus. Look Magazine. Retrieved from http://
One part of the “scientific” investigation of online dating that especially interests me is follow-up data. I am wondering if readers would be willing to share some of their online experiences, good and bad here?
Advantages and disadvantages of online dating sites. Online dating sites start with self-report questionnaire data. As such, they could be extremely useful if they screen out risky partners. For example, someone whith a history of substance abuse and/or a criminal record could be prevented from user a matching site. And, certain people….those that are agreeable, flexicle, and healthy may make a great partner for anyone!