Online dating — the psychology (and reality)
A science writer explores dating sites like Match.com, Tinder, eHarmony and Chemistry, interviewing experts along the way
By David Levine Posted on 12 February 2015
When my marriage ended 11 years ago, I went online. I hadn't dated in over 20 years. I never liked bars. All of my friends were married. But with 87 million singles in the United States and nearly 40 million dating online, it seemed a good way to meet someone. So I signed up for Match.com, which has more than 21.5 million subscribers.
I received 350 emails in a month. One woman wrote me, "Unlike Popeye, I am NOT what I am but if nothing else I am kind and compassionate and to top it off I am interesting and exciting." None of the women on Match were boring. They loved to ski, surf, go to the theater, travel to exotic places, go for walks on the beach, run marathons and read.
No one said they liked to stay home. Dr. Philip Muskin, Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, is not surprised. "People present themselves in the best light online," he said. "No one is going to respond to someone who says they are a couch potato and likes to stay home."
I was lucky. I met someone on Match in six weeks. (I have friends who have been on dating sites for years.) I corresponded with 50 women and met 15 for drinks, which is recommended over meeting someone for dinner. Why? Because if after 15 minutes you don't like the person you are stuck; and for men that means the bill as well.
But then one cold night in November, I met a Match date in a bar in Greenwich Village. I had a date for the next Saturday night for seven years.
Now that I am "single again," I wondered what was new in online dating in 2015. Emily Bartz, dating content manager for NextAdvisor.com (which provides independent reviews and research of online services for consumers and small businesses), told me that online dating sites are becoming better at matching you to potential dates and online dating is increasingly being done on mobile phone dating apps.
"The biggest complaint people have about online dating is wasting time with people they have nothing in common with. Dating sites are now steering you toward people who have similar tastes in movies, music, religion and education, " Bartz said. "And people are spending more time on their phones and the dating sites know this. As a result, they have created apps that are extensions of their internet presence or are solely available on phones."
[pullquote align="right"]"People present themselves in the best light online. No one is going to respond to someone who says they are a couch potato and likes to stay home."[/pullquote]
Match.com, eHarmony, Lavalife and Zoosk all have mobile dating apps for your Smartphone.
Trying out Tinder
The hottest mobile app is Tinder. Its users, 80% who are between ages of 18 and 34, make 1.5 billion swipes of photographs resulting in 20 million matches a day, according to Tinder vice president Rosette Pambakian. "We even matched two people in Antarctica."
Unlike traditional dating sites, Tinder does not have profiles that tell you what a person likes to do, wants in a mate or information on height, weight, religion, children or political preferences. (There is a small "about" section on Tinder which is optional. Most are blank.) On Tinder if you like a person's photograph you swipe right, if not, you swipe left. And unlike other dating sites you can't communicate with a person on Tinder unless you both swiped yes to each other. (On Match.com you can write to anyone.)
I decided to try Tinder. As a Baby Boomer it was probably not the best choice because Tinder is mainly used by Millennials. But as a person living in New York City, fewer is relative and Tinder is free. And I liked the idea of not having to reading profiles; because after reading hundreds of online profiles you realize they are depressingly similar and yes, dare I say it, boring. ("I like to laugh; I have wonderful children; I am comfortable dressed to the nines or wearing blue jeans; I consider myself lucky; the man I want is ...")
I found Tinder to be interesting and fun. In two weeks I have swiped a lot and have had 35 mutual matches. I quickly learned that it's best not to go on Tinder too often because it can be addicting and exhausting.
I also discovered that Tinder has its limitations. Who you see is based on where you are geographically as determined by your phone's GPS. When I visited my mom in Florida and logged onto Tinder everyone on the site was in Florida. That's because the maximum search distance you can set is 100 miles. The next version of Tinder, Tinder Plus, will let you choose different locations and also undo a swipe in case you said no to someone you liked by mistake. Tinder Plus will be a premium service; it won't be free.
Are pictures enough?
Can you really tell if you like someone by just looking at a picture? The answer is yes according to Dr. Benjamin Le, a Associate Professor of Psychology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and co-founder of scienceofrelationships.com:
Initial physical attraction is a really important first step so starting with pictures actually makes some sense. Once there's interest based on physical attraction, then more substantial interaction and decision making can occur, but without that initial physical attraction it's difficult to move to that next stage.
Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and the Chief Scientific Advisor to Match.com, agrees with Le. "A photograph of a person with a tattoo could be a deal breaker for you. Similarly, if you don't like men who are bald or prefer blondes to brunettes, then that person is not for you."
Both Le and Fisher say profiles are important to read as they give you more information to help you decide to pursue, or not. Dr. Fisher said, "If two people look the same, but one is a Republican who works on Wall Street while the other is a poet who just hitchhiked across Europe, these are two very different people."
Dr. Le said, "We can accurately distill information about someone's personality from social media profiles (i.e., a Facebook page), so I would expect that an online dating profile could be similarly diagnostic if filled out honestly."
Dr. Fisher noted that technology is not changing love, just changing the way we court. Fisher says the goal of online dating is to meet a person as soon as possible. "No profile, no picture will find you the perfect person. When you meet a potential partner for the first time, your ancient human brain takes charge and you court by its prehistoric rules."
[pullquote align="right"]"When you meet a potential partner for the first time, your ancient human brain takes charge and you court by its prehistoric rules."[/pullquote]
Dr. Fisher knows about brains. She has scanned the brains of people in love and people who have had a breakup. She devised a personality test for Chemistry.com which has been taken by 13 million people in 40 countries. The free test matches personality traits linked with the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems and tells you whether you are an Explorer (traits inked with the dopamine system such as risk taking, creativity, and curiosity); a Builder (with traits linked with the serotonin system such as rule following, calm, respects authority), a Director, (traits linked with the testosterone system including being analytical, logical, direct, and decisive) or a Negotiator (traits linked with the estrogen system such as being empathetic, intuitive, verbally skilled and trusting).
Is it perfect? No, Dr. Fisher said:
Everyone expresses a complex mix these all these traits and we all have had childhood and adult experiences that no test can measure perfectly. But personality has some natural patterns, so it's a good guide. And if my questionnaire helps you understand yourself and kiss fewer frogs – great!
From emotions to emojis: Match.Com's Singles in America study
Just in time for Valentine's Day, Match.com, which bills itself as "the world's largest relationship company," has released its fifth annual Singles in America study.
The study is funded by Match.com and conducted by Research Now in association with biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, Match's Chief Scientific Advisor, and evolutionary biologist Dr. Justin R. Garcia of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. The study is based on the attitudes and behaviors of a representative sample of 5,675 US singles ages 18 to 70+ and is billed as the most comprehensive annual survey of single Americans.
"According to the most recent census estimate, over a third of American adults are currently single," Dr. Fisher said, "and after five years of interviewing them, my colleagues at Match and I have found definite patterns to how singles seek and find love, as well as their habits and attitudes.
"Technology is dramatically changing how we court, but it can't change the brain systems for romance and attachment," she added. "And today's singles are setting a high bar for courtship and marriage. In fact, 34% of single men and 32% of single women believe it is ok to leave a 'satisfactory marriage' if you are no longer passionately in love. They want it all, and many believe they can get it all. I think they can, too."
This year's survey compared data for the online dater with that of the offline dater. "Online daters go on more dates, are more likely to be actively seeking a committed relationship, and are more likely to be employed full-time and are more educated," noted Amarnath Thombre, President of Match North America, in the press release. "In 20 years, the perception of our category has changed dramatically and it reflects in who uses it today."
Other key findings:
- Singles identified themselves as belonging to of one of the following groups: Conservative Republican (8%), Moderate Republican (11%), Moderate Democrat (19%), Liberal Democrat (19%), Libertarian (2%), Independent (13%), or no stated political affiliation (27%).
- Single Democrats and Republicans surveyed agree on these three issues: the US has a responsibility to aid allies in need (57% R, 54% D); Congress will continue to be ineffective without change (68% R, 69% D); governments should be limited in their access to private data (81% R, 76% D).
- 75% of singles want their date to have an opinion on foreign and domestic news and events.
- Most singles believe in "a woman's right to choose" (74% men; 81% women); the legalization of marijuana (54% men; 48% women); environmental protection laws (72% men; 76% women); and marriage rights for LGBT individuals (56% men; 60% women). Most singles also agree that they would vote for a single president (91% men; 90% women); and while 18% of singles don't have an opinion on a presidential candidate's gender, of those that do, a vast majority would vote for a female president (87% men; 95% women).
Do emoijis work?
Can emojis — those little icons that "express" feelings that you can insert into text messages and on Facebook Messenger – help your sex life? Apparently so. The study found a correlation between emoji use and a better and more robust sex lives. It was reported that 51% of singles say they use emojis to give their texts "more personality," and 37% say that emojis make it "easier to express their feelings." Single emoji-users are also twice as likely (62%) as non-users (30%) to want to get married.
Macho, macho man ... no more
Dr. Fisher said the survey also showed that the era of the macho man was over. "Like George Clooney, many men seek the 'new woman' – someone who is smart, powerful and self-sufficient," she said. The researchers found that 87% of single men would date a woman who makes "considerably more" money and who is considerably better educated and more intellectual than themselves; 86% seek a woman who is confident and self-assured, and 39% would also make a long-term commitment to a woman who is 10 or more years older.
What do women want?
And finally, an answer to Freud's question, what do women want? Single women said they wanted more time with friends (64% women; 55% men), more personal space (90% women; 78% men), their own bank account (78% women, 68% men); and to pursue their own hobbies and interests (93% women, 88% men). Single women were also more likely to expect to date someone for one to two years before living together (33% women; 30% men), while single men are most likely to want to date 6-12 months before cohabitating (34% men; 23% women). Yet, 46% of singles believe the sexes are equally romantic. And 51% of single women don't care if a man makes as much money as they do, but 63% of single women would not date someone who has considerable debt.
Elsevier Connect Contributor
David Levine (@Dlloydlevine) is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York (SWINY) and a member the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). He served as director of media relations at the American Cancer Society and as senior director of communications at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. He has written for Scientific American, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, More magazine, and Good Housekeeping , and was a contributing editor at Physician's Weekly for 10 years. He has a BA and MA from The Johns Hopkins University.