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Friday
Oct312014

The Truth Behind Online Dating: What Motivates Users and Companies

Read Part 1 of this series here: The Truth Behind Online Dating: What Is and Isn’t Real

People are shallow. Psychological science has demonstrated that people often use a “what is beautiful is good” mental shortcut.1 People tend to assume positive characteristics about others based on physical attractiveness, even though these perceptions are not accurate. This bias for beauty has been shown in all types of contexts that are not limited to online dating. A classic study from the 60s on in-person dating found that a date’s hot body/face predicted romantic attraction more than personality traits, intelligence, popularity/charisma, mental health, and self-esteem.2

More recent “speed-dating” research shows similar results; beauty mattered more than political attitudes, preferred hobbies, values/ethics, and even attachment security.3 Perhaps unsurprisingly, some results from OKCupid’s data crunching show similar findings. (Profile) Pictures matter a lot more that text on a profile in terms of eliciting attraction. To the millions of people who use online dating services, I would suggest putting more effort into your profile pictures and less into verbal self-description. Take some good quality photos, maybe not with the tiny selfie camera in your phone. 

A practical tip to enhance your physical attractiveness in a photo would be to utilize the “cheerleader effect” to your advantage. Recall that this effect causes a person to appear more attractive when they pose in the context of a group compared to when they pose individually.4 Snap a photo of yourself with some of your friends and upload it to your profile (but make sure it’s clearly labeled so that other folks know which one is you!). Better yet would be to take a picture with a friend who looks similar to you (similar hair color, height, etc.) but is slightly uglier than you are. This will make you look more attractive by comparison. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “asymmetric dominance.” 5

Online dating exists as a business to turn a profit. It sounds like a cynical perspective to take, but the online dating website/app companies aren’t 100% enthusiastic about you finding a successful relationship, because if you do, then they lose a customer. It’s in their best interest to have you keep dating and keep using their software. With some websites (e.g., Match, eHarmony), people pay directly for subscriptions, but even with the free websites (e.g., Plenty of Fish), there are tons of revenue-generating advertisements (similar to the Facebook business model). There is a real conflict of interest here, because the success of the business depends in part on having lots of users, and also in large part on the publicly perceived success of those users.

But notice how these companies rarely (if ever) publish empirical information on the dating success of their users. They might share a few testimonials (with happy “relfies”) from some couples, but what actual percentage of users found what they were looking for? 60%? 30%? And in what time frame? Within the first half-year of their service sign-up date, or longer? What percentage of dates turned into relationships? What’s the long-term relationship satisfaction of those users? On average, how much money does a user have to give up (to a pay-subscription site) before they have dating success? You’re unlikely to find those questions answered with any data on the FAQ pages.

Consider an (anecdotal) example from my own dating experiences—last year I went on a Grouper with some friends, which turned out to be a lot of fun. My buddies and I met some attractive women, and we hit it off. I let the Grouper staff know about our happy experience, and they were thrilled for us…but then immediately suggested we go on another Grouper the following week. Perhaps I was naïve to be so surprised by this. I expected a different response, something like, “That’s great to hear! We hope you go out with them again soon, and let us know if it doesn’t work out, we’ll set you up with a new group of women.” Instead what I got was, “That’s great to hear! We have another group set up for you right now!”

Before you over-generalize based on this one anecdotal experience, I should mention the counter point, which is that from a macroeconomic perspective, no one would use online dating websites if they were completely useless in terms of helping people find happy relationships. Some folks do date, fall in love, have sex, and share happiness with partners they meet online. But who are those folks? If only we had some data to help us address this question…stay tuned for a follow up article on this topic.

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1Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285–290.

2Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1966). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(5), 508-516. doi:10.1037/h0021188

3Luo, S. (2009). What leads to romantic attraction: Similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 933-964.

4Walker, D. & Vul, E. (2014). Hierarchical encoding makes individuals in a group seem more attractive. Psychological Science, 25(1), 230-235. 

5Sedikides, C., Ariely, D., & Olsen, N. (1999). Contextual and procedural determinants of partner selection: Of asymmetric dominance and prominence. Social Cognition, 17(2), 118-139. doi:10.1521/soco.1999.17.2.118

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.

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