But algorithmic-matching sites exclude all such information from the algorithm because the only information those sites collect is based on individuals who have never encountered their potential partners (making it impossible to know how two possible partners interact) and who provide very little information relevant to their future life stresses (employment stability, drug abuse history, and the like).
So the question is this: Can online dating sites predict long-term relationship success based exclusively on information provided by individuals—without accounting for how two people interact or what their likely future life stressors will be? Well, if the question is whether such sites can determine which people are likely to be poor partners for almost anybody, then the answer is probably yes.
Indeed, it appears that eHarmony excludes certain people from their dating pool, leaving money on the table in the process, presumably because the algorithm concludes that such individuals are poor relationship material. Given the impressive state of research linking personality to relationship success, it is plausible that sites can develop an algorithm that successfully omits such individuals from the dating pool. As long as you’re not one of the omitted people, that is a worthwhile service.
But it is not the service that algorithmic-matching sites tend to tout about themselves. Rather, they claim that they can use their algorithm to find somebody uniquely compatible with you—more compatible with you than with other members of your sex. Based on the evidence available to date, there is no evidence in support of such claims and plenty of reason to be skeptical of them.
For millennia, people seeking to make a buck have claimed that they have unlocked the secrets of romantic compatibility, but none of them ever mustered compelling evidence in support of their claims. Unfortunately, that conclusion is equally true of algorithmic-matching sites.
Without doubt, in the months and years to come, the major sites and their advisors will generate reports that claim to provide evidence that the site-generated couples are happier and more stable than couples that met in another way. Maybe someday there will be a scientific report—with sufficient detail about a site’s algorithm-based matching and vetted through the best scientific peer process—that will provide scientific evidence that dating sites’ matching algorithms provide a superior way of finding a mate than simply selecting from a random pool of potential partners. For now, we can only conclude that finding a partner online is fundamentally different from meeting a partner in conventional offline venues, with some major advantages, but also some exasperating disadvantages.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.