Every day, millions of single adults, worldwide, visit an online dating site. Many are lucky, finding life-long love or at least some exciting escapades. Others are not so lucky. The industry—eHarmony, Match, OkCupid, and a thousand other online dating sites—wants singles and the general public to believe that seeking a partner through their site is not just an alternative way to traditional venues for finding a partner, but a superior way. Is it?
With our colleagues Paul Eastwick, Benjamin Karney, and Harry Reis, we recently published a book-length article in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest that examines this question and evaluates online dating from a scientific perspective. One of our conclusions is that the advent and popularity of online dating are terrific developments for singles, especially insofar as they allow singles to meet potential partners they otherwise wouldn’t have met. We also conclude, however, that online dating is not better than conventional offline dating in most respects, and that it is worse is some respects.
Beginning with online dating’s strengths: As the stigma of dating online has diminished over the past 15 years, increasing numbers of singles have met romantic partners online. Indeed, in the U.S., about 1 in 5 new relationships begins online. Of course, many of the people in these relationships would have met somebody offline, but some would still be single and searching. Indeed, the people who are most likely to benefit from online dating are precisely those who would find it difficult to meet others through more conventional methods, such as at work, through a hobby, or through a friend.
For example, online dating is especially helpful for people who have recently moved to a new city and lack an established friendship network, who possess a minority sexual orientation, or who are sufficiently committed to other activities, such as work or childrearing, that they can’t find the time to attend events with other singles.
It’s these strengths that make the online dating industry’s weaknesses so disappointing. We’ll focus on two of the major weaknesses here: the overdependence on profile browsing and the overheated emphasis on “matching algorithms.”
Ever since Match.com launched in 1995, the industry has been built around profile browsing. Singles browse profiles when considering whether to join a given site, when considering whom to contact on the site, when turning back to the site after a bad date, and so forth. Always, always, it’s the profile.
What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Sure, profile browsing is imperfect, but can’t singles get a pretty good sense of whether they’d be compatible with a potential partner based on that person’s profile? The answer is simple: No, they cannot.
A series of studies spearheaded by our co-author Paul Eastwick has shown that people lack insight regarding which characteristics in a potential partner will inspire or undermine their attraction to him or her (see here, here, and here ). As such, singles think they’re making sensible decisions about who’s compatible with them when they’re browsing profiles, but they can’t get an accurate sense of their romantic compatibility until they’ve met the person face-to-face (or perhaps via webcam; the jury is still out on richer forms of computer-mediated communication). Consequently, it’s unlikely that singles will make better decisions if they browse profiles for 20 hours rather than 20 minutes.