I remember, with fondness, a good friend’s first foray into online dating. She was matched with a man she had already rejected, in person, for committing the first-date sins of being patronizing about her work and admitting that he sometimes wished his longtime ex-girlfriend was dead. And yet, after filling out an extensive survey promising to use the most advanced matching technology, my friend was paired with the very guy she already knew she never wanted to see again. So what faith should we have in the gods of computer science when it comes to dating?
Well, as it turns out, it’s not all bad. Dan Slater, author of Love in the Time of Algorithms, believes that online dating can make for happier unions — even if you have to weed out some weirdos along the way. Here, he explains the benefits of online dating and why more choice isn’t always better when it comes to love.
Q: How good has the online dating world gotten at matching people with someone who might truly make them happy?
A: I think some of the best sites are improving, because of both the technology and the people who are signing up. The more information that’s accumulated, and the more they learn about users and which matches they make work, they’re getting wiser about how to match people up. But there’s also a steep learning curve for users themselves, and there are things they can do about how they use the sites and how to avoid red flags. Online dating simply means that you’re meeting more people, not better people. That’s a hard reality for some people to get used to because they come to online dating with very high expectations. But if you stick with it, and you take some of the information you learn and apply it, you can figure out how to make yourself happier with how these sites work.
Q: When comparing the difference between meeting online and meeting through friends, do you think there’s any difference in the potential of those introductions?
A: It’s hard to answer. Objectively, I don’t think it matters; it’s ultimately about the two people who were brought together. And success in a relationship can be tough to quantify. But where it does matter is in how the relationship is perceived as a result of how you meet. If you’re meeting through friends, you might perceive your dating life in a different way from someone meeting through online dating sites. You may perceive your options to be more limited if you’re thinking of your pool of mates as who you know and who your friends know. It may mean that you’re more willing to engage more with a particular person and work through the issues that come up. If you’re dating online, you might perceive your options to be a lot larger and so you might have a higher bar for happiness. Once that first red flag, or simply thing you don’t like, comes up you can just go back and click a few buttons and talk to another 50 people.
Q: Can you elaborate on how the bar for happiness is raised and what that means?
A: There’s been some psychological research into commitment and how someone decides whether to stay or leave a certain relationship. One of the elements is the perception of alternatives. If you perceive that your number of alternatives is higher, you’re less likely to commit — which makes intuitive sense. When you think you have more alternatives, you have raised the bar. We used to just have smooth and crunchy peanut butter, but now we have 40 types of peanut butter. The options seem great, but there’s now a better chance that if a particular peanut butter doesn’t satisfy all of your needs, you figure you can always try something else.
Q: Do you think online dating is playing any role in creating happier relationships?
A: Absolutely. When I was doing my reporting, I found so many people who were in happy relationships who didn’t think they would be this position without this technology. Online dating gives people options they wouldn’t have otherwise had. It can be very, very hard to meet people.
Q: Do you have any sense of who’s benefitting most?
A: I would have to guess. But I would say people in late-middle age. As you get older, your social networks start to diminish and it’s harder to meet other single people. Online dating helps combat that.
Q: Do you think there’s a way to use online dating to get to a better match?
A: The best advice I can give is that online daters need to be circumspect when they approach this. Ignore the sales pitches that this is some magic technology, where you click a button and your soul mate pops up. That leads to high expectations and it’s one of the reasons people experience disappointment so early on. You have to realize that this is simply a tool to introduce you to more people – which means meeting more bad people and more good people. You just need to persevere through some of the more awkward situations and stick with it. And if you do, I think the chances of meeting someone you really like are fairly good.