PlentyofFish. Match.com. OkCupid. eHarmony. These are just a handful of dating websites that offer users the opportunity to seek out romantic partners and, if lucky, develop a fulfilling, committed relationship. Such dating sites promise access to a large selection of potential partners, the ability to communicate virtually with other users prior to meeting face-to-face, and (allegedly) rigorous matching with compatible potential partners. It is unclear, however, whether meeting partners online yields more positive romantic outcomes1 than do more traditional avenues (e.g., meeting a relationship partner through friends or by chance encounter). Should you leave it to your computer to play matchmaker, or are you better to stay offline and wait for Cupid’s arrow to strike?
Psychological scientists critically examined research concerning online dating to address these very questions (click here for more on this topic). Here’s what they say about the services online dating has to offer:2
Access: Online dating increases users’ exposure to potential romantic partners with whom they may be otherwise unlikely to meet. Online dating has several advantages when it comes to finding a potential romantic partner. For starters, the computer-mediated interface removes some of the anxiety of having to approach a stranger face-to-face. And in contrast to conventional offline dating, online dating resolves the uncertainty regarding the romantic availability of a given potential partner. That is, it is assumed that dating site users are looking to become romantically involved, whereas it is initially less clear if an individual you meet offline is available and interested in dating.
Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed previously, access to a multitude of potential partners is not as good for relationships as it would seem. Many online daters feel overwhelmed with choice overload. Further, people tend to prioritize different qualities when engaging in joint evaluation (comparing many choices simultaneously, such as when browsing online dating profiles) than when considering items one-by-one. Thus, during the browsing process people frequently focus on attributes that are easy to see, like physical appearance details, which won’t actually make them happy in the long term.
In short, the main advantage of online dating—extensive and convenient access to other individuals who are presumably motivated to establish a romantic relationship—is also its downfall. The nature of online dating promotes a rapid-evaluation mindset that may blind people to what is truly important in a real relationship. Fortunately, many dating sites address this downfall by allowing users to communicate online (e.g., instant chat, sending messages) to learn more about specific potential partners.
Communication: Online dating is unique in that users may communicate prior to meeting, even to the point of developing feelings for each other before a face-to-face interaction takes place. Might this preliminary virtual “getting-to-know you” process aid in relationship formation? Perhaps. Brief periods of computer-mediated communication that occur before a face-to-face interaction appear to improve people’s impressions of one another. Computer-mediated communication encourages the formation of positive impressions between message senders, giving their connection a “head start” that paves the way for a positive in-person meeting when it does occur.3,4 Still, if the gap between communicating and meeting up is too long (e.g., 6 weeks in one study), the benefits disappear—perhaps because the in-person reality doesn’t live up to people’s idealistic visions. But although virtual communication can foster liking by allowing users to assess compatibility and engage in intimate self-disclosure, it cannot (and does not) take the place of face-to-face interaction. Given that there is a potential for mismatch in presentations online and in real life, it is important to meet in person to verify physical characteristics as well as experiential attributes, such as rapport and gut-level evaluations, that inform our impression of someone’s suitability as a romantic partner. Luckily, the next, and perhaps most valued, feature of online dating aims to ensure that the in-person experience doesn’t stray far from our expectations and desires.
Matching: Many dating sites use mathematical algorithms to select potential partners (“matches”) for users with whom the user will be particularly likely to experience a positive romantic outcome. The matching process has some merit in that it eliminates from the dating pool those who may be poor relationship prospects in general (e.g., someone with a neurotic personality or a substance abuser) or highly incompatible matches who would be unlikely to date online or offline (e.g., people with very different educational backgrounds).
The problem with Internet matchmaking lies in the fact that it focuses solely on qualities of individuals that can be known prior to a face-to-face encounter (e.g., responses to questionnaires). This approach is flawed when it comes to predicting the success of real relationships, as some of the best-established predictors of how a romantic relationship will unfold—and if it will last—can be known only after the relationship begins. Matching algorithms assume that individual qualities of two people, such as personality and interests, highly predict romantic outcomes; on the contrary, research suggests that how partners interact may be more important than the person-specific and surface-level similarities that dating sites tend to emphasize.5,6
Furthermore, the predictors of what makes for a successful first meeting are likely to be different from or less important than those factors that facilitate the growth of a long-term relationship. For example, shared likes and attitudes—which are easily assessed through matching—may carry great weight in determining initial likeability; however, they are perhaps less influential in the long run for determining whether two individuals will develop a satisfying, lasting relationship. Basically, matching algorithms are limited because 1) they can’t predict how two people will interact and 2) they often fail to capture aspects most impactful for building a committed relationship.
The Bottom Line: If you decide to give online dating a try, be sure to follow these science-supported tips: 1) evaluate potential partners completely and one at a time to best determine those who are well-matched on dimensions significant to you; 2) communicate with a potential partner not long before meeting offline to increase feelings of intimacy and attraction, which may enhance the subsequent in-person encounter; 3) take your “matches” with a grain of salt—online dating sites have published no research that adequately supports the claim that their algorithms generate more compatible matches than does traditional dating. Truly, the best judge of compatibility is how well individuals interact and feel around each other, so instead of spending the day surfing profiles, start surfing for some new places to go and things to do in-person with your potential new date.
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1Positive Romantic Outcomes: the extent to which someone positively evaluates, and/or intends to pursue, a specific romantic partner and/or relationship.
2Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., Sprecher, S. (2012). Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspecitve of Psychological Science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 3-66.
3McKenna, K. Y. A., Green, A. S., & Gleason, M. E. J. (2002). Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58, 9–31.
4Ramirez, A., & Zhang, S. (2007). When online meets offline: The effect of modality switching on relational communication. Communication Monographs, 74, 287–310.
5Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
6Johnson, M. D., Cohan, C. L., Davila, J., Lawrence, E., Rogge, R. D., Karney, B. R., . . . Bradbury, T. N. (2005). Problem-solving skills and affective expressions as predictors of change in marital satisfaction. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 15–27.
Jana Lembke - Science Of Relationships articles
Jana's research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning.
Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.