Calculating Your Dates - Algorithm Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Don Hankins.

How did you find your partner?

“Well, a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process.”

“We met by a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (akin to finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves a repetition of operation.”

Does this sound cute? Probably not. Romantic? Sexy? Not so much…

However, the algorithms utilized by many dating websites are the way that they determine the likes of potential partners.

Such online dating algorithms do provide unique and nuanced ways for singles to meet: eHarmony uses an extensive questionnaire to assign dates, OkCupid analyzes lifestyle questions to equate compatibility percentages, Chemistry looks at people’s personality types.

Besides, members of modern society have a right to keep up with innovative technology and general social trends. It’s not like we have to go to the village matchmaker or adhere to arranged marriages to settle on a partner. But societal evolution considered and traditions aside, do these romantic calculations add up?

“To date, there is no compelling evidence that any online dating matching algorithm actually works,” Eli Finkel, the lead author of the study, “Online Dating,” stated last year in a press release.

Paul Eastwick, a co-author of “Online Dating” who works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas, concurs.

“Dating algorithms suggest that they understand compatibility between two people before they meet each other,” Eastwick tells BTR. “Our assessment of the literature is that there is really no evidence that they are able to do this, at least not with the measures that currently exist.”

While the aforementioned “algorithm” definitions (adapted from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary) sound very technical, the authors negate the idea that the secretive “matching algorithms” used by dating sites adhere to science, and fail to predict a successful long-term relationship.

The actual algorithms themselves, which are property of the individual dating websites, are complex and highly researched. Eastwick points out that the team of researchers for “Online Dating” did not analyze the specific algorithms used by dating websites, but applied their knowledge about love and relationships to analyze the factors of these romantic networking sites. From their research, they decided that the variables analyzed by dating sites only go so far, and that online dating cannot be considered superior to other offline means of determining a mate.

Significant aspects that ensure a successful relationship may not be so straightforward to calculate, such as the actual social interaction when the people initially meet or continue seeing each other — not to mention how they will cope with stressful situations in the long run. Life is complex and ever changing: to maintain a true life partner takes substantial commitment, mutual understanding and the ability to grow together.

Another fault with online dating that this study points out is its shopping aspect. Sure, there’s the metaphor “meat market” to describe a lusty singles bar (not to mention the “sidewalk sale” of questionable commodities after last call) — but being in the physical presence of potential partners differs from sitting at home and sliding the scroll button downward on your mouse to browse through what’s on offer.

In addition, the way that users curate their dating profiles can be limiting. People who sign up for these sites might manifest an alternative online personality that is not entirely representative of their real-world self.

“There’s nothing wrong with putting your best foot forward when it comes to dating, but the problem with profiles is usually that the information is sufficiently vague and abstract,” says Eastwick. He continues that what people interpret from online profiles “doesn’t always line up with what they will like when they meet people face-to-face.”

Of course, online dating does not have to just be viewed as a negative cultural phenomenon.

“Dating sites are great for being able to view a lot of people very quickly,” says Eastwick.

Nevertheless, he argues that this increased accessibility will not necessarily guarantee that the quantity of singles provided will necessarily determine quality. No matter how many personal profiles are presented, they are not “crude proxies” for predicting that people will hit it off when they meet, or withstand any challenges throughout life.

Algorithms can be complex and intricate and likewise, so can relationships. Perhaps the two are just not meant to be.