Online Dating is Only Good For Swiping

September 21, 2017

New research (Joel, Eastwick, and Finkel, 2017) makes it clear – the most useful application of online dating is the right swipe.

Matchmaking algorithms at online dating sites like Chemistry.com, eHarmony and OKCupid do not work. They may or may not predict long-term compatibility, but they definitely do not predict attraction. In our time, that’s a dealbreaker. If you can’t get past the first date, any potential for long-term success is wasted.

Researchers created an algorithm and administered a comprehensive online survey to 350 straight subjects. It covered over 100 aspects of attraction based on the scientific literature, including:

  • Big 5 personality traits: introversion/extroversion, conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism and agreeableness
  • Status/resources
  • Attractiveness/vitality
  • Warmth/trustworthiness
  • Attachment style
  • Sociosexuality
  • Values, e.g. traditional, conservative, liberal
  • Interest in a long-term relationship
  • Perception of own mate value
  • Well-being, life satisfaction
  • Ideal partner characteristics

They hypothesized that the survey would have at least some predictive value. For example, extroverts or liberals would like each other. They then compared the data with real-life speed dating results. Each subject went on a dozen speed dates. Afterwards they answered three questions on a scale of 1-9:

  • “I really liked my date.”
  • “I was sexually attracted to my date.”
  • “I am likely to say yes to my date.”

They found that not only was the algorithm no more effective than random pairings, in some cases the algorithm results were worse. Samantha Joel was interviewed by NPR:

The machine could figure out who the most desirable people in the bunch were based on certain characteristics like physical attractiveness, Joel says. But when it came to predicting which people would be a good fit for each other, the machine failed spectacularly.

“It predicted 0 percent [of the matches.] Some of the models we ran got a negative percentage, which means you’re better off just guessing,” Joel says.

This has upended the study of attraction and relationships:

“They’re saying [real attraction] is something over and beyond what we know about what makes someone attractive,” says Robin Edelstein, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who studies relationships and was not involved in the work. If the results suggest that attributes psychologists would think attract certain people are effectively useless when it comes to making matches, then what is actually going on when two people are drawn to one another?

That question has left Joel and other psychologists scratching their heads. “It’s a very elusive, mysterious thing. I don’t think people even know themselves what it is about a specific person,” Edelstein says. “I don’t know if it’s about specific questions or specific traits.”

Overall, here’s what the research has shown:

We can predict people’s tendency to desire others.

Measures like pickiness and self-assessments of warmth predict how easily people are attracted to others.

We can predict the tendency of some people to be desired. 

Sociosexuality, i.e. attitudes re casual sex is important. So is mate value.

We cannot predict how much one individual will desire another individual.

Joel et al say that desire may be “comprised of a great many interaction effects, each tiny but real.” In other words, until two people meet and interact, there is no way of knowing whether they will feel any attraction.

In addition, Joel points out that there is “mounting evidence that the qualities people initially find romantically desirable only weakly match the qualities that they articulate in the abstract.” This means we’ll have to throw out the studies that do nothing except ask people what they like, because they don’t actually know what they like. It may still be helpful in some cases to study attitudes, but more important is the observation of the real-life choices people make. Scientists don’t understand enough about attraction currently to add any predictive value.

Is romantic desire like a chemical reaction, such that the right combination of traits and preferences from two people will predictably result in strong levels of desire? Or, is it more like an earthquake, such that the dynamic and chaos-like processes that cause its occurrence require considerable additional scientific inquiry before prediction is realistic?

[This] doesn’t inspire much faith in the algorithms at dating website like eHarmony or OKCupid. “It’s disappointing. There isn’t that shortcut we want there to be,” Joel says.

On the other hand, she says the study only looked at whether their participants had an initial attraction that would start a relationship, not long-term compatibility. Limiting the pool to people with similar views might help with that, like the way eHarmony does, even if it does nothing for attraction.

But in Western culture, at least, you still need someone you’re initially attracted to in order to get to the long-term relationship, Joel says. After this study, she doesn’t think using mathematics is the way to figure that out – at least not today. “I no longer have faith in matching algorithms,” she says. To know if sparks are going to fly, Joel says, nothing is more telling than an old-fashioned face-to-face.

Conclusion: Strategy Recommendations

1. The best dating strategy is to keep both online and old-school dating in your toolbox.

Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. I recommend putting 20% of your effort into online apps. Use the rest of your time creating opportunities to meet new people organically via shared interests or friends.

These findings suggest that swipe-based apps like Tinder are likely the most useful, because they deal with initial attraction up front. They recreate the dynamic of two pairs of eyes locking across a crowded room. Of course, you can’t just walk over to that person and start a conversation like you can at a party. But then again, you’re likely to get a lot more matches in a lot less time.

I would definitely not recommend investing money in a site that promises a long-term match based on some extensive questionnaire.

2. Capitalize on what makes you unique.

Sometimes the most important thing is to know what we don’t know. Social scientists have just told us we don’t know how to predict – at all – which people will find one another “uniquely appealing.”

Research at OKCupid shows that people with unusual or unique traits get more interest than people are more generally attractive. From a post I wrote:

OKCupid calls it the curse of being “cute” and comes up with a weighted formula that suggests you’re better off if 30% of guys think you’re heinous than if everyone thinks you’re quite attractive. What’s going on? OKCupid says that some people tend to produce stronger reactions than others. Being a person who draws a consensus appraisal is an online dating faux pas, and they go so far as to suggest playing up your faults in photos.

Don’t follow the herd – develop your own style and stick with it.

Are you surprised that algorithms have zero predictive value? In your experience, have you been attracted to people you wouldn’t have described in a survey? How do you define sexual chemistry? How much does it vary among individuals? Let’s discuss!