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The Shaky Science of Online Dating

The Shaky Science of Online Dating
Illustration by Tracy Ma

Ten years ago, online dating was seen as the last refuge of the desperate; today it’s mainstream enough that the worried parents of some of my unmarried friends urge them to keep their online profiles updated. Estimates vary, but tens of millions of Americans use sites like Match.com, PlentyOfFish.com, EHarmony, OKCupid, and Chemistry.com, along with niche dating sites like JDate (for Jewish singles), Gay.com, and SugarDaddie. A single person today doesn’t have to be content with whom they might meet at work or a party, or at church or the local bar. They can go online and browse millions of profiles to find that special someone who shares their love of yakitori, corgis, and Ultimate Fighting. Many sites take things one step further, offering, through proprietary algorithms, to pick a perfect match for a person out of the cacophony of online profiles, with an accuracy that puts human matchmakers to shame. It’s “science-based” matching.

A new paper, however, calls into question much of that science. Writing in the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI), five psychologists who specialize in the study of human relationships argue that, while increasing the potential matches does increase the odds that a person will find a romantic partner, the rest of what online dating sites offer doesn’t do much at all. And some of the services the websites offer might backfire, causing users to overlook people they might be happy with. “By suggesting that compatibility can be established from a relatively small bank of trait-based information about a person—whether by a matchmaker’s algorithm or by the users’ own glance at a profile—online dating sites may be supporting an ideology of compatibility that decades of scientific research suggests is false,” the authors write. Or, as lead author Eli Finkel puts it, “We looked at the quote-unquote evidence they mustered, and said this doesn’t pass muster.”