Image by Gordon Tarpley, originally as a submission to the “Struggle” 3d digital sculpting challenge by cgchannel.com.
Love, as embodied by the ancient Greeks and Romans, is a mischievous youth, wreaking romantic havoc by shooting arrows of love into his unwitting ‘victims.’ Today, our matchmaking god manifests itself in many forms, the most popular names including eHarmony, Match, and Zoosk; though they may shoot emails instead of arrows, they are every bit as mischievous as the winged baby of lore.
The Association for Psychological Science recently enlisted five psychology professors to write a study about online dating, and the report was published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The report’s abstract states that the study employs psychological science to examine two questions: whether online dating is fundamentally different from traditional dating, and whether online dating creates romantic outcomes superior to offline dating.
To answer these questions, lead author Eli Finkel of Northwestern University and his associates studied the three primary functions of dating sites: access, communication, and matching. Access refers to the users’ ability to find potential mates that they would otherwise be unlikely to meet, communication is considered the users’ ability to use forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC) to interact with potential partners before meeting in person, and matching is defined as the site’s algorithm for selecting potential partners for the users.
Though the study finds that the online dating industry does provide some advantages in the search for love, the general conclusion is that online dating falls short for various scientific reasons. Among those advantages is access — online dating reverses the traditional dating process, in that online profiles allow people to learn a set of facts about a person and then judge whether or not they want to meet them, rather than meeting someone and gradually learning facts about them. Instead of relying on one’s own intuitions or those of friends and family, the sites’ mathematical algorithms decide which people would make ideal matches. The overwhelming collective of single people in one place is also unprecedented, allowing a much higher level of access for people who might otherwise have none.
So far online dating sounds like a panacea for the busy, timid, picky, or geographically disadvantaged, so where does the mischief begin? In answering the question of superiority, the professors find that the websites’ implementation of access, communication, and matching are sometimes counterproductive to romantic success. Online dating profiles reduce people to two-dimensional boxes of information, which fail to capture experiential nuances of social interaction, such as mannerisms. The ability to access such a large pool of people can also lead users to objectify potential partners, and make it difficult to commit to just one of them.
In regard to the matching criterion, the study finds no compelling evidence for the sites’ claims that their algorithms create romantic outcomes superior to those created by other ways of pairing partners. The mathematical algorithms are built around principles of similarity or complementarity, but these are less important to relationship functionality than has been assumed. The algorithms are also not good predictors for how two people will grow over time, and thus cannot accurately determine the likeliness of long-term relationship success.
As for the factor of communication, the report states that though computer-mediated communication (or CMC for short) provides the benefit of speaking to partners before meeting, longer periods of CMC before meeting in person can hurt romantic prospects. Specifically, a process known as hyperpersonalization may take place. Communication professor Joseph B. Walther of Michigan State University developed the hyperpersonal model in 1996, suggesting that CMC can become hyperpersonal when it exceeds face-to-face interaction, allowing message senders advantages over real-life interaction. Essentially, CMC can increase the probability that people will form positive or idealized impressions of someone they have met online rather than in person. Forms of CMC give people more control of the communication process by allowing editing and revision of messages, and allow people to display themselves more strategically. The ability to self-edit one’s image can present a false or inaccurate impression, ultimately leading to disappointment upon meeting such a person in reality. All of these features of CMC can cause users to experience high levels of attraction and intimacy that may not hold when meeting face-to-face.
Though the study paints a less positive image of online dating, it is not a dismissal of the industry as hopeless. Rather, the study suggests that dating websites should be used to get off-line as quickly as possible in order to avoid the pitfalls of CMC. As Finkel states, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. So once you’ve been shot with an alluring email, it’d be best to explore the date in an offline place.