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Friday
Mar162012

Online Dating: The Paradox of Choice

As discussed in a previous post, some relationship scientists seriously doubt the effectiveness of the algorithms used by online dating sites to match people to potential partners. Even if these algorithms do not hold the key to everlasting love, online dating sites provide access to more dating partners than you can shake a stick at. If you are looking for love, having more options is better, right?

Not exactly. Researchers have demonstrated that although we like having more options when making a decision, we are ultimately less satisfied with our choice when we have a larger, as opposed to smaller, number of options.

In one study, researchers asked participants to imagine being presented with a list of potential partners, with the list ranging in size from one option to 5000 options.1 Participants were told to think about how the number of options would make them feel if they were choosing an actual dating partner from this list. Although participants thought they would find it more difficult to choose from a larger set of potential mates, they also expected to feel less regret. Perhaps it is easier to think you didn’t miss out on someone great if you have more options to choose from. Participants also felt they’d enjoy searching for mates more and would be more satisfied with their choice when they had more options. Perceived levels of enjoyment and satisfaction increased steadily up to about 20 to 50 options, then leveled off and decreased after a few hundred options - so it seems that people think that roughly 20-50 profiles is the ideal number to choose from.1

In a second study, men and women were asked to select a potential mate from fictitious online dating profiles. Participants saw either 4 profiles (a number of options deemed too small in the first study) or 20 profiles (deemed the “ideal” number in Study 1) and then made their choice. In contrast to what participants thought in Study 1, Study 2 participants did not find selecting from 20 options any more difficult than selecting from 4 options. And contrary to expectations, it was not more enjoyable to select from the larger number of options. Interestingly, participants did not feel any more satisfied with their choices or any less regret when selecting from 20 (vs. 4 options).1 This finding is in line with the paradox of choice that has been applied to everything from selecting a chocolate bar to a laundry detergent. Although we think more options will make us happier, this does not play out in real life choices (i.e., the 200th option does not add as much as the 12th option). 

Basically, we choose differently when we have more options. That is, because a greater number of options are more difficult to manage (in terms of our ability to weigh the options and make the best selection), we tend to use more heuristic choice strategies (quick and easy cues to make a decision) as opposed to a more comprehensive choice strategy where we consider deeper criteria when making a decision. Part of the reason is that too many options are overwhelming. For example, in a speed dating event (which also included online profiles that could be accessed after the event), daters were more likely to use the quick and easy cues (such as age, height and weight) to make their choice when the size of the group was large compared to small, and were more likely to use cues that could not be discerned visually (education, occupation, smoking status) when the size of the group was small compared to large.2

Researchers suggest that this heuristic strategy may be better suited for daters who are looking for casual sex as opposed to a long-term partner. If you are looking for long-term love, too many options may not be a good thing.

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1Lenton, A. P., Fasolo, B., & Todd, P. M. (2008). “Shopping” for a mate: Expected versus experience preferences in online mate choice. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 51, 169-182.

2Lenton, A. P., & Francesconi, M. (2010). How humans cognitively manage an abundance of mate options. Psychological Science, 21, 528-533. doi: 10.1177/0956797610364958

Dr. Amy Muise - Sex Musings | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.

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