Prior research by Lenton and Francesconi provides some insight into why people might struggle with speed dating. They found that when the number of participants in a speed-dating event increases, people lean more heavily on innate guidelines, known as heuristics, in their decision making. In essence, heuristics are ingrained rules of thumb that allow us to save effort by ignoring some of the information available to us when we evaluate our options. For example, in those events with a relatively large number of participants, the researchers discovered that people attend predominantly to easily accessible features, such as age, height, physical attractiveness, and so forth, rather than clues that are harder to observe, for example, occupation and educational achievement.
These rules of thumb are evolutionarily adaptive, however, and not necessarily a bad thing. Millions of years of experimentation with different heuristics, conducted in a range of environments, have led us to learn which ones are most effective. Very generally speaking, good looks and youthful vigor are indeed useful metrics for mating because they signal health. Yet if lifelong love is what you are after, a smorgasbord of singles might propel you to make stereotypical selections.
Know Your Environment
One problem with both speed dating and online dating may arise from how we hunt for the things we want. Some items can be found with a simple search targeted at objective qualities. So-called search goods include laundry detergent and vitamins. Other desirables can be identified only through an interaction; these “experience goods” encompass movies and puppies.
In a study published in 2008 psychologist Dan Ariely of Duke University and his colleagues set out to demonstrate that when it comes to dating, people are the ultimate experience goods. They asked 47 single men and women to list the qualities they look for in people they would consider either marrying or dating. Independent evaluators then rated the characteristics as either searchable or experiential. In both conditions, men and women mentioned more experiential traits—nearly three times more for dating partners and almost five times more for spouses.
Ariely and his co-authors argue that criteria such as “the way someone makes you laugh” or “how your partner makes you feel good about yourself” are harder to define in an online profile than a fondness for kittens, baseball or crème brûlée, leading people to make judgments based on searchable characteristics. They note that using attributes such as weight and height to choose a partner is similar to trying to predict the taste of a food based on its fiber content and calories. A similar argument could be made for speed dating, in which the conversation can resemble an interview more than a fun experience.
In an upcoming book, Lenton, Fasolo and their colleagues summarize the key message of recent research: how we end up choosing our wives, husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends is a function of the social environment in which the decision is made. To conserve both mental exertion and time, we judge potential partners by comparing them with others we have encountered rather than by measuring them against some cognitive ideal. In a 2006 study, for example, Raymond Fisman of Columbia University and his colleagues showed that when participants in a speed-dating event were asked what they seek in a potential partner, their answers did not match what they ended up finding attractive during the event. What we select depends on what else is being offered.
Becoming aware of that malleability in our taste, and gaining control over our decision-making strategies in response, is known as ecological rationality. It is equally important when choosing between jams at the grocery store and partners to date; the only difference is the stakes.