The Dating Game

CreditHannah K. Lee 

WE turn to screens for nearly every decision. Where to eat. Where to vacation. Where to eat on vacation. Where to get treatment for the food poisoning you got at that restaurant where you ate on vacation. Where to write a negative review calling out the restaurant that gave you food poisoning and ruined your vacation. So it’s no surprise our screens are becoming the first place we turn to when looking for romance — because you need someone to take care of you when you get food poisoning on your vacation, right?

One of the most amazing social changes is the rise of online dating and the decline of other ways of meeting a romantic partner. In 1940, 24 percent of heterosexual romantic couples in the United States met through family, 21 percent through friends, 21 percent through school, 13 percent through neighbors, 13 percent through church, 12 percent at a bar or restaurant and 10 percent through co-workers. (Some categories overlapped.)

By 2009, half of all straight couples still met through friends or at a bar or restaurant, but 22 percent met online, and all other sources had shrunk. Remarkably, almost 70 percent of gay and lesbian couples met online, according to the Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld, who compiled this data.

And Internet dating isn’t just about casual hookups. According to the University of Chicago psychologist John T. Cacioppo, more than one-third of couples who married in the United States from 2005 to 2012 met online.

Online dating generates a spectrum of reactions: exhilaration, fatigue, inspiration, fury. Many singles compare it to a second job, more duty than flirtation; the word “exhausting” came up constantly. These days, we seem to have unlimited options. And we marry later or, increasingly, not at all. The typical American spends more of her life single than married, which means she’s likely to invest ever more time searching for romance online. Is there a way to do it more effectively, with less stress? The evidence from our two years of study, which included interviews around the world, from Tokyo to Wichita, Kan., says yes.

TOO MUCH FILTERING The Internet offers a seemingly endless supply of people who are single and looking to date, as well as tools to filter and find exactly what you’re looking for. You can specify height, education, location and basically anything else. Are you trying to find a guy whose favorite book is “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and whose favorite sport is lacrosse? You’re just a few clicks away from this dream dude.

But we are horrible at knowing what we want. Scientists working with Match.com found that the kind of partner people said they wanted often didn’t match up with what they were actually interested in. People filter too much; they’d be better off vetting dates in person.

“Online dating is just a vehicle to meet more people,” says the author and dating consultant Laurie Davis. “It’s not the place to actually date.” The anthropologist Helen Fisher, who does work for Match.com, makes a similar argument: “It’s a misnomer that they call these things ‘dating services,’ ” she told us. “They should be called ‘introducing services.’ They enable you to go out and go and meet the person yourself.”

What about those search algorithms? When researchers analyzed characteristics of couples who’d met on OkCupid, they discovered that one-third had matching answers on three surprisingly important questions: “Do you like horror movies?” “Have you ever traveled around another country alone?” and “Wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?” OkCupid believes that answers to these questions may have some predictive value, presumably because they touch on deep, personal issues that matter to people more than they realize.

But what works well for predicting good first dates doesn’t tell us much about the long-term success of a couple. A recent study led by the Northwestern psychologist Eli J. Finkel argues that no mathematical algorithm can predict whether two people will make a good couple.

PICTURE PERFECT People put a huge amount of time into writing the perfect profile, but does all that effort pay off?

OkCupid started an app called Crazy Blind Date. It offered the minimal information people needed to have an in-person meeting. No lengthy profile, no back-and-forth chat, just a blurred photo. Afterward, users were asked to rate their satisfaction with the experience.

The responses were compared with data from the same users’ activity on OkCupid. As Christian Rudder, an OkCupid co-founder, tells it, women who were rated very attractive were unlikely to respond to men rated less attractive. But when they were matched on Crazy Blind Date, they had a good time. As Mr. Rudder puts it, “people appear to be heavily preselecting online for something that, once they sit down in person, doesn’t seem important to them.”

Some of what we learned about effective photos on OkCupid was predictable: Women who flirt for the camera or show cleavage are quite successful. Some of what we learned was pretty weird: Men who look away and don’t smile do better than those who do; women holding animals don’t do well, but men holding animals do. Men did better when shown engaging in an interesting activity.

We recommend the following: If you are a woman, take a high-angle selfie, with cleavage, while you’re underwater near some buried treasure. If you are a guy, take a shot of yourself spelunking in a dark cave while holding your puppy and looking away from the camera, without smiling.

TOO MANY OPTIONS As research by Barry Schwartz and other psychologists has shown, having more options not only makes it harder to choose something, but also may make us less satisfied with our choices, because we can’t help wonder whether we erred.

Consider a study by the Columbia University psychologist Sheena S. Iyengar. She set up a table at an upscale food store and offered shoppers samples of jams. Sometimes, the researchers offered six types of jam, but other times they offered 24. When they offered 24, people were more likely to stop in and have a taste, but they were almost 10 times less likely to actually buy jam than people who had just six kinds to try.

See what’s happening? There’s too much jam out there. If you’re on a date with a certain jam, you can’t even focus because as soon as you go to the bathroom, three other jams have texted you. You go online, you see more jam.

One way to avoid this problem is to give each jam a fair chance. Remember: Although we are initially attracted to people by their physical appearance and traits we can quickly recognize, the things that make us fall for someone are their deeper, more personal qualities, which come out only during sustained interactions. Psychologists like Robert B. Zajonc have established the “mere exposure effect”: Repeated exposure to a stimulus tends to enhance one’s feelings toward it.

This isn’t just a theory. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the University of Texas psychologists Paul W. Eastwick and Lucy L. Hunt suggest that in dating contexts, a person’s looks, charisma and professional success may matter less for relationship success than other factors that we each value differently, such as tastes and preferences. In fact, they write, few people initiate romantic relationships based on first impressions. Instead they fall for each other gradually, until an unexpected or perhaps long-awaited spark transforms a friendship or acquaintance into something sexual and serious.

Think about it in terms of pop music. When a new song featuring Drake comes on the radio, you’re like, “What is this song? Oh another Drake song. Big deal. Heard this before. Next please!” Then you keep hearing it and you think, “Oh Drake, you’ve done it again!”

In a way, we are all like that Drake song: The more time you spend with us, the more likely we are to get stuck in your head.

No one wants to invest too much on a first date. After all, the odds are it won’t be a love connection. It’s hard to get excited about a new person while doing a résumé exchange over beer and a burger. So stack the deck in your favor and abide by what we called “The Monster Truck Rally Theory of Dating”: Don’t sit across from your date at a table, sipping a drink and talking about where you went to school. Do something adventurous, playful or stimulating instead, and see what kind of rapport you have.

SWIPE AWAY Apps like Tinder boil the dating experience down to assessing people’s images. Compared with stressing out over a questionnaire, swiping can be fun, even addictive. Within two years, Tinder was said to have about 50 million users and claimed responsibility for two billion matches.

As with all other new forms of dating, there’s a stigma around swipe apps. The biggest criticism is that they encourage increasing superficiality. But that’s too cynical. When you walk into a bar or party, often all you have to go by is faces, and that’s what you use to decide if you are going to gather the courage to talk to them. Isn’t a swipe app just a huge party full of faces?

In a world of infinite possibilities, perhaps the best thing new dating technologies can do is to reduce our options to people within reach. In a way they’re a throwback to a past age, when proximity was crucial. In 1932, the sociologist James H. S. Bossard examined 5,000 marriage licenses filed in Philadelphia. One-third of the couples had lived within a five-block radius of each other before they wed, one in six within a block, and one in eight at the same address!

Today’s apps make meeting people fun and efficient. Now comes the hard part: changing out of your sweatpants, meeting them in person, and trying for a connection so you can settle down and get right back into those sweatpants.

9 comments

  1. I am so grateful that I didn’t have to use on-line dating to meet my husband. I think introducing services best matches what they do. My friend has done this and had very strange stories to share as a result. Oh well… strange may be better than nothing?! I don’t know. It seems that the traditional ways of meeting people, especially when you are out of your 20s, has gone by the wayside. An interesting post.

    Like

  2. I met the hubs on an online dating site…..I also met a lot of non-spouseworthy folks. But it was a great deal of fun. You have to not take it too seriously -just get out there determined to enjoy yourself. Worst result, you have a GREAT story!

    Liked by 1 person

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