Online dating provides opportunities we do not have in the real world, like scanning 100 potential sweethearts in an hour. But some of these advantages may actually be drawbacks. Anonymous browsing, for instance, allows users to look at people's profiles without the target knowing they got checked out—which can mean freedom from drawing unwanted messages. Yet it also erases any breadcrumbs that might lead to love. A paper published online in February in Management Science finds that on the whole, this feature backfires.
The researchers selected 100,000 users of a large online dating site and gave half of them the ability to browse anonymously, which usually costs extra. They became less inhibited and more likely to look at people of the same sex or a different race. “We thought the disinhibition would translate into more matches,” says Jui Ramaprasad, a professor of information systems at McGill University and one of the paper's four authors. But women with this ability actually made fewer matches because they did not leave so-called weak signals of interest that might lead the other party to follow up. The simple notification that a particular person perused your profile is often enough to get a conversation started. Anonymous browsing did not affect men's matches as much, because the men were already uninhibited—they messaged individuals who interested them. Women, however, are less likely in general to make the first move and therefore depend more on sending weak signals to invite flirtation.
Further, what secret scanners lost in quantity they did not gain in quality. The average romantic appeal of their matches, as rated by other users, was no different from those of nonanonymous users. In the end, daters may be better off retaining the digital equivalent of exchanging furtive glances at a bar.