Online Dating is More Popular Than Ever, But Does it Work?

eHarmonyMarriagesOnline dating has definitely become mainstream in the last few years.  According to this Pew Research report, “Online Dating and Relationships” (2012), 38% of American adults “single and looking” (7% of the adult population) have used online dating websites or dating mobile apps.

But is it working?  Well, 66% of online daters have gone on a date via online dating, so it seems to be successful for getting first dates at least.  What about longer-term?  23% of online daters say they have met a spouse or long-term partner this way.  Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone doing online dating is looking for something long-term.

Similar results are reported in a 2010 Stanford study (How Couples Meet and Stay Together):  more people now meet online than meet through school, work, church, bars, parties, etc.  (The study refers to romantic partnerships formed from 2007-2009: 21% of heterosexual couples and 61% of same-sex couples met online.)

What about the quality of the relationships?  According to a study conducted by eHarmony, one of the most popular online dating sites, “eHarmony couples are more satisfied with their marriages than those who met on Match.com, via friends or family, or at a bar/social event“.  The report goes on to say that married couples who met on eHarmony were 66% less likely to get divorced, vs. married couples who met in a bar, who are only 24% less likely to get divorced.  Now, given that this study was conducted by eHarmony itself, I think it’s fair to take it with a grain of salt.

What about the negative side of online dating?  Again from the Pew study:  54% of online daters felt “someone else seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile“.  In addition, 32% of internet users agree with the statement that “online dating keeps people from settling down because they always have options for people to date.”  Worst of all, 42% of female online daters (and 17% of male) “have been contacted by someone through an online dating site or app in a way that made them feel harassed or uncomfortable”.

That may be one reason for the rise of popular mobile dating apps like Tinder.  Tinder is extremely simple:  you link to a few profile pics from your Facebook account, add a little bit about your interests, and you’re ready to start searching for love.  It gamifies the experience, allowing you to swipe through dozens or even hundreds of eligible people’s photos.  When you select one you like, nothing happens unless that person selects you as well, in which case you’re set up for an online chat.   The fact people’s profiles are linked to Facebook cuts down on the misrepresentation issue, and the fact you must show mutual interest before you’re allowed to send a message limits unwanted communication.

More in-person social groups are popping up to combat the “job searching” fatigue of looking for a mate.  “Online dating is like shopping online for somebody – you have a shopping list,” says Joy Nordenstrom, CEO and founder of Joy of Romance, a Bay Area matchmaking and relationship coaching service. “You’re not seeing the whole person, just bits and pieces.”

Sites like eHarmony claim to use superior matching algorithms to make sure you are only matched with people who are right for you.  Sounds great, right?  According to Professor Eli Finkel, however, who conducted exhaustive research on the landscape of online dating in his 2012 paper, there is no credible evidence to suggest that these algorithms help whatsoever.

He’s not all negative about online dating; it’s all in how you use it.  Professor Finkel’s advice?  Use online dating to expand your pool of potential partners, and then, sooner rather than later, meet up with them for coffee to see if sparks fly.

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Speed Dating: What You Say Matters

Photo by Francois Peladeau
Photo by Francois Peladeau

In the paper “Making a Connection:  Social Bonding in Courtship Situations,” Stanford professor Dan McFarland analyzed speed dating transcriptions to see  what role language plays in determining whether people “click”.  (Co-authors are Dan Jurafsky and Craig Rawlings.)

I recently met with Professor Dan McFarland (at Stanford’s Center for Education), and it’s clear that what you say, and how you say it, is absolutely correlated with whether or not you will give a high score on the “Did we click?” scale.

Couples (note:  all the dates in the study were male/female couples) are more likely to say they both clicked when the woman in the main focus of the conversation.  Women are more likely to connect with men who use more appreciations (“That’s awesome!”) and sympathy (“That must have been hard.”)  Coordinating pronouns is also indicative of feeling connected, such as when the woman is using “I” and the man aligns by responding with “you”.

This resonates with work done by James Pennebaker,  who found that “when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date.”  Pennebaker notes that this isn’t simply because similar people are attracted to each other; instead, when you feel attraction, you subtly shift your language patterns to match that person.

Interestingly, women often reported feeling a connection with men who interrupted them!  However, when the conversations were examined, it was found that in these cases men were not interrupting to control the conversation, but rather to show understanding and alignment with what the woman was saying.

If a 4-minute speed date contains too many questions, that can be a bad sign.  The speed dates that were more likely to lead to a connection had fewer questions, presumably because both people were engaged in more interesting and emotional conversations, and did not have to fall back on the “So, what do you do?” types of questions to move things along.  This was especially true for the women.

Multiple studies have found that women are more selective in speed dating scenarios, meaning, they are less likely to check the box that they want to go on a date with someone.  However, this is likely a result of the traditional speed dating format, which has the women stay seated and the men move from person to person.  A speed dating setup that had the women move around found the opposite effect:  the men were pickier in their selections.

When I asked Professor McFarland what practical outcome the speed dating study could have for real-life dating, he raised the idea of using textual analysis to predict compatibility.   In another of his papers analyzing the speed dating data (“Detecting Friendly, Flirtatious, Awkward, and Assertive Speech in Speed-Dates“) they found that the computer was better as predicting whether the participants’ speech was classified as “flirtatious” than the participants themselves.  Using this method, an on-line dating side could examine the chats you were having with a potential date and see what kind of intentions the other person had, leading you away from a choice that might go nowhere once you met up in person.  Anything than can be used to prevent an awkward, no chemistry date seems like a great idea to me.