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Does Online Dating Really Work?

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Whether enlisting the help of a grandmother or a friend or the magic of Cupid, singles long have understood that assistance may be required to meet that special someone.

Today such help is likely to come from online methods of matchmaking. But online dating, according to new Northwestern University research, depends largely on ineffective algorithms and profiles for finding potential love interests. In other words, with the report card in, the online dating industry won’t be putting this one on the fridge, as while online dating offers users some very real benefits, it falls far short of its potential.

Unheard of just twenty years ago, online dating is now a billion dollar industry and one of the most common ways for singles to meet potential partners. Many websites claim that they can help you find your “soulmate.” But do these online dating services live up to all the hype? Not exactly, according to an article to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Lead author Eli Finkel, Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Northwestern University, recognizes that “online dating is a marvelous addition to the ways in which singles can meet potential romantic partners,” but he warns that “users need to be aware of its many pitfalls.”

Many online dating sites claim that they possess an exclusive formula, a so-called “matching algorithm,” that can match singles with partners who are especially compatible with them. But, after systematically reviewing the evidence, the authors conclude that such claims are unsubstantiated and likely false.

“To date, there is no compelling evidence that any online dating matching algorithm actually works,” Finkel observes. “If dating sites want to claim that their matching algorithm is scientifically valid, they need to adhere to the standards of science, which is something they have uniformly failed to do. In fact, our report concludes that it is unlikely that their algorithms can work, even in principle, given the limitations of the sorts of matching procedures that these sites use.”

The authors suggest that the existing matching algorithms neglect the most important insights from the flourishing discipline of relationship science. The algorithms seek to predict long-term romantic compatibility from characteristics of the two partners before they meet. Yet the strongest predictors of relationship well-being, such as a couple’s interaction style and ability to navigate stressful circumstances, cannot be assessed with such data.

According to Finkel, “developers of matching algorithms have tended to focus on the information that is easy for them to assess, like similarity in personality and attitudes, rather than the information that relationship science has found to be crucial for predicting long-term relationship well-being. As a result, these algorithms are unlikely to be effective.”

Mobile dating, the latest iteration in digital dating, however, may hold promise, because it brings together potential partners face-to-face fast to see if “sparks” exist, the research suggests. Although the research on mobile dating is scarce, Finkel, is optimistic about this approach.

“GPS features on smartphone apps can tell you who is nearby and willing to be browsed,” Finkel said. “With a little bit of basic information, potential daters can get together right away for a quick face-to-face meet-up.”

Good old-fashioned face-to-face contact still is paramount in finding that special someone, and the faster that happens the better, the research suggests. In previous research, Finkel and his co-authors found that ideal preferences of daters viewing online profiles fell by the wayside after in-person meetings with potential partners.

Finkel maps three generations of online dating and discusses each approach.

The first generation in 1995—the launch of Match.com:

“We use the analogy that dating sites like Match.com are like supermarkets of love,” Finkel said. “You check out the wares (online profiles) and see what you like. Upon first blush, this approach seems reasonable, but there are two major problems with it: People really don’t learn much from a profile, and people get overloaded by choice.”

The second generation in 2000—enter eHarmony:

Sites like eHarmony market themselves less as supermarkets of love than as something akin to real estate brokers of love. They use “matching algorithms” in an effort to identify which potential partners are especially compatible with a given online dater.

The choice issue, Finkel observed, is somewhat solved by the algorithm approach. Only a handful of people are chosen as compatible matches.

“But there is no compelling evidence that any of these algorithms work,” he said. “Limiting the number of potential partners is only helpful if the algorithmic-selection process favors compatible partners over incompatible ones, which it fails to do. Even if the algorithms are cutting 2,000 potential partners down to five, if that process is random, is it really any better than strolling into the neighborhood bar?”

The third generation in 2008—mobile dating:

With the advent of smartphone apps, mobile dating was launched. Mobile dating’s ability to get people face-to-face fast may make a big difference, according to the new Northwestern research.

“You have a little bit of basic information,” Finkel said. “Is this person below threshold or above threshold for a five-minute meet-up—five minutes from now? There’s no better way to figure out whether you’re compatible with somebody than talking to them over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer.”

The authors hope their report will push proprietors to build a more rigorous scientific foundation for online dating services.

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