AS A PSYCHOLOGIST, I have always found the concept of speed dating fascinating. During a series of mini dates, each spanning no more than a couple of minutes, participants in a speed-dating event evaluate a succession of eligible singles. They make split-second decisions on matters of the heart, creating a pool of information on one of the more ineffable yet vital questions of our time—how we select our mates.
The concept of rapid-fire dating has gained tremendous popularity, spreading to cities all over the world. One speed-dating company in New York City, for example, holds a gathering almost every day. Last year online coupon company Groupon hosted the world’s largest speed-dating event, with 414 attendees crammed into a restaurant in Chicago. Start-up companies now meet with investors, pregnant couples interact with doulas, and homeless dogs court potential owners, all using the speed-dating format.
Some years ago I caved to my curiosity and tried it out myself. As it turns out, I like to talk—a lot. When the little buzzer went off after three minutes, I often found myself still trying to explain to my bedazzled dating partner why my last name has four syllables (it is Dutch). As you might imagine, I did not find the love of my life.
I made some beginner’s mistakes; however, I am not alone in having struggled with speed dating. Even if meet-and-greet matching events might seem like the most efficient way to comb through many options at once, a wealth of data reveals that the context in which we make a choice weighs heavily on the outcome. Speed-dating events can promote a particular decision-making style that might not always work in our favor. Yet we need not be passive victims of our circumstances. Knowing how your environment influences your mind-set, a quality known as ecological rationality, can help you make the choices that are best for you.
Traditional dating can seem haphazard, contingent on seemingly minor details such as whether you signed up for the right yoga class or patronized the same bar as your future love interest. Online dating, too, has its drawbacks, requiring hours to sift through profiles and craft careful introductory e-mails before arranging to meet in person. Speed dating, by comparison, offers the opportunity to chat up many eligible singles in rapid succession.
In a typical speed-dating event, participants pair off at individual tables and chairs for a few minutes of conversation. When the buzzer sounds, half of the singles move to another chair and a different partner, in a kind of round robin. After the event is over, the daters submit to the event’s organizers the names of the individuals they would like to see again. It sounds simple, but each variable in the design of the event can affect the daters’ outcomes.
In spite of maxims about so many fish in the sea, for example, recent research tells us that the heart prefers a smaller pond. In a study in 2011 in the journal Biology Letters, University of Edinburgh psychologist Alison P. Lenton and University of Essex economist Marco Francesconi analyzed more than 3,700 dating decisions across 84 speed-dating events. The authors found that when the available prospects varied more in attributes such as age, height, occupation and educational background, people made fewer dating proposals. This effect was particularly strong when individuals were faced with a large number of partners. Additionally, in speed-dating events where the characteristics of the daters varied much more, most participants did not follow up with any of their matches.
Results observed in the world of online dating support this finding. A study in 2008 by Lenton and Barbara Fasolo of the London School of Economics and Political Science indicates that participants often misjudge how the number of options available to them will affect their feelings. Participants presented with a broad array of potential partners more closely aligned with their anticipated ideal did not experience greater emotional satisfaction than when presented with fewer options.