Study: The truth about online dating sites selling you the science of love

shutterstock_72420901Ever tried to find love through your computer? Online dating has grown into a large, billion dollar industry over the past 15 years, and has become a mainstream way to meet your future mate. However, a new study, led by Northwestern University Associate Professor of Social Psychology, Eli Finkel, examines the truth behind online dating sites, and the bold claims that science-based algorithms will find your soulmate.

Finkel, along with four other co-authors, reviewed over 400 psychological studies in their 64-page analysis. The scope of the article covers general sites like Match and OkCupid, as well as niche sites, family matchmaker sites like Kizmeet, video/virtual dating sites like WooMe, self-report algorithm sites like eHarmony, websites like ScientificMatch and even mobile dating apps such as Zoosk and Badoo. Beyond the scope of the article are sites like Craigslist, hookup sites, infidelity sites, websites for group dates, social networking Facebook-esque destinations and MMORPGs like WOW.

The report begins by showing that the stigma of dating websites being an online cantina of the unsociable, the inept and the sleezy anti-social, has been shed in recent years. Since 1997, and more drastically in the early 2000s, a substantial number of singles have met partners through online dating sites. Match claims that at least 1 in 5 relationships begin online.

In fact, since online dating managed to dissociate itself from the more socially unacceptable printed personal advertisements and video dating of the last decades, meeting on the Internet has become the second most common way to meet a mate. According to a study conducted in 2009 with a national sample of 4,002 adults, 22% said they had met on the Internet; making the Internet the premier way to find a partner, after meeting through friends. The statistic carries on the trend from 2006’s 20%, and is assumed to be greater today thanks to technological progress.

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However, the study states that the shift in attitude can be partially attributed to the millions of dollars that online dating sites spend to promote the services. Two problems brought up by the claims advertised by online dating sites concern the encouragement of ‘soulmates’, and the authority of “science-based” algorithm matching.

According to the authors, the soulmate idea pushed onto users by various online dating sites can have a negative impact on romantic relationships. By encouraging users to find that perfect match, websites promote a seed of thought associated with relationship dysfunction: “Indeed, people with strong beliefs in romantic destiny (sometimes called soulmate beliefs)–that a relationship between two people either is or is not “meant to be”–are especially likely to exit a romantic relationship when problems arise.” The authors assert that the long-term, healthy relationship emerges from overcoming challenges.

Many sites other than eHarmony (like Match) have begun to offer suggested matches based on algorithms. The basic problem which the study’s authors have with scientific claims is that the research is not valid; dating sites are riding the authority of the science claims, but haven’t “[reported] research methods and statistical analyses in sufficient detail to allow for independent replication,” or adhered to standards for interpreting data. The authors also drop an FTC bomb for good measure; pointing to deceptive advertising in regards to scientific claims and consumer testimonials. In addition, the authors point out that the algorithms focus on short-term versus long term, and fails to take into account how partners grow and mature over time or life circumstances that could help or hurt the relationship.

But online dating isn’t all bad. Aside from the advertising of dating sites, dating profiles relegate “three-dimensional people” to two-dimensional summations; an argument similar to m00t’s multi-faceted identity argument against Google and Facebook at last years Web 2.0 Summit. However, online dating has enormous potential to expedite a time-consuming affair, according to the authors. Also, the medium offers unprecedented access to large numbers of potential partners. While dating sites have had problems weeding out the deception and the criminal, ultimately, users have confidence that they can screen and communicate with potential partners in a safe and comfortable setting. With those positives in mind, and the pitfalls outlined, there are “substantial opportunities” to improve online dating in the future. Finkel’s study will be appearing in a forthcoming journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Image courtesy of AISPIX/Shutterstock

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