Lonely after his wife of 46 years died in 2000, Roger Moore, 75, tried Internet dating but quickly grew tired of prospective dates’ self-promotional profiles. The “on-line meat market,” as he called it, consisted primarily of details such as would-be dates’ hair and eye color and their affinities for sunset walks on the beach. The descriptions were short on the things that mattered: personality, character and shared values.
So when Moore heard a radio advertisement for Eharmony.com -- an online dating company that promised help in finding a soul mate based on personality assessments -- he paid $250 for a yearlong membership.
The retired Los Alamos nuclear laboratory statistician answered the 436 questions in the personality profile, ranging from how much he enjoyed playing pranks on others to how agreeable and frugal he was. On a scale of 1 to 7, was he dominant? Cold? Gregarious? Desirous of sexual activity?
As the stigma of online dating as a last resort fades, millions of U.S. singles of all ages are trying to find mates via a click of a mouse. But with hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers, some of the most popular sites are adding elaborate psychological tests -- such as Eharmony.com’s -- to match people with those they might get along with best.
The online dating companies have hired psychologists and computer experts to refine questionnaires not only to hone their knowledge about what personality types are mostly likely to click, but also to determine the most important elements each subscriber is looking for in a match.
Pasadena-based Eharmony .com started the trend four years ago with its 29-areas-of-compatibility index. At least in part because of Eharmony’s popularity, others, such as TrueBeginnings, have followed suit with their own personality assessments. TrueBeginnings also runs its subscribers through a database of convicted felons -- rapsheets .com -- to weed out potential stalkers or thieves.
Even Match.com, which pioneered online dating in 1995 and boasts the largest number of visitors to its site, has begun offering an eight-minute personality test and has gone as far as developing a physical attraction test to help determine what physical traits are most appealing to each individual -- for instance, men who tend to be lean and angular, ones with square jaws or those who resemble “bears” because of their large sizes and gentle nature.
It soon plans to screen potential dates’ photos, presenting subscribers with ones who seem to be their type, both physically and mentally.
In Moore’s case, Eharmony .com’s computers spat back 100 potential matches with similar traits, of which Moore met six in person. But none seemed to be “the one.” He widened his geographical scope, and a tantalizing prospect arrived in his in-box: Barbara, a retired physical therapist, also 75 and widowed after an equally long marriage.
They traded e-mails, gabbed on the phone and finally arranged to meet at Spiffy’s restaurant -- halfway between their respective Vancouver and Sammanish, Wash., homes. For the next date, he drove the 180 miles for a lunch at her house, and she mentioned that her spare bedroom was available for his next visit.
They married in February, their six middle-aged children serving as attendants.
As Moore found, online matchmaking tools can be quite helpful, serving at least as a starting point. Outside of meeting someone at school or work, the odds of finding a compatible date or mate through more traditional methods -- at singles bars, via introductions by mutual friends or by sheer serendipity -- are mostly random and inefficient, social scientists say.
“People are not good at understanding what they find attractive in other people,” said Aaron Ahuvia, a consumer psychologist and associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, who has studied dating behavior. “People tend to focus on common interests and superficial characteristics and not understand the importance of -- or want to talk about -- goals, values and what they want to get out of a relationship.”
Advance screening can increase the odds that two people will like and be compatible with each other, Ahuvia says -- and save the substantial amount of time that might be invested before one would otherwise broach potentially deal-breaking concerns such as whether the other person wanted kids.
The profiles can be a good way of narrowing the field from, say, 10,000 candidates to 10 and then figuring which of those might be worth getting to know.
The personality assessments -- and computer matching -- can also be helpful in overcoming the emphasis on looks, which (particularly for men) plays a big part in the search. “If the computer says you should look at this person -- even if they don’t look like your ideal -- hopefully, you’d be generous enough to give it a try,” Ahuvia says.
But letting the computer pick matches might also prevent subscribers from reviewing candidates who, for whatever reason, they might not be matched with -- but who could still be ideal. (Match.com lets subscribers review all candidates; Eharmony and TrueBeginnings do not.)
Each company has its own formula. Eharmony weighs similarities as most important, incorporating founder Neil Clark Warren’s observations from the 35 years he spent as a psychologist, counseling thousands of couples trying to repair failing marriages. The happiest couples, in his experience, tend to be of similar intelligence, energy, ambition and industriousness, with lots of common interests and things they enjoy doing together.
“Similarities are like money in the bank,” says Warren, who has been happily married for 45 years to his wife, Marylyn, a senior vice president at the company. “Differences are like debts you owe. It’s all right to have a few debts as long as you have equity in the bank; otherwise you go bankrupt.”
Moreover, he says, other things -- such as sharing religion or spirituality, wanting or not wanting to have children -- are weighted based on how important those factors are to each individual. One particularly important measure of compatibility, he notes, seems to be whether two people share a passion for the arts. It’s fine if neither does, but if one does and the other doesn’t, it could be a big problem.
Of course, Warren says, strong couples can sustain some differences. He and wife Marylyn, for instance, have opposite political views and argued vehemently during the days following the last presidential election, when the outcome was in dispute for weeks. “If we didn’t have so much equity in our account when the Gore-Bush thing was going on in Florida, it would have ripped at us,” Warren said.
Many of the other services also weight heavily similar interests and shared values. In general, most social scientists say, while opposites might initially attract, over time they repel.
TrueBeginnings takes a somewhat different view. It connects subscribers based not only on the characteristics they share and desire in a mate, but also on some of the differences that might improve their relationship. For example, if one person handles money management poorly, the last person he or she should be paired with is someone with that same trait.
But such complementary differences can turn into a liability if the relationship deteriorates; the one handling the money, for instance, might be viewed as controlling rather than helpful.
James Houran, TrueBeginnings’ director of psychological studies, says the cement in the relationship comes from how much the pair enjoy and are committed to each other and the relationship -- and that element is what tests can’t measure.
WeAttract.com, which developed the personality test for Match.com, takes the view that “lasting relationships are those that can live with quirks -- and those that might even make the partner more adorable to the other,” says Mark Thompson, president of WeAttract.com and developer of the test.
“Most of us are 6 or 7s (on a scale of 10), so maybe they’re not an A but really a B. But we want to be with someone who thinks we’re an A,” he adds. “The beautiful thing about the Internet is that even if that person [who appreciates you] is one in a million, you can find [that person].”
He recalls a Rubenesque woman some years ago whom he thought was beautiful -- but who complained that no one wanted to date her. If Internet dating were available back then, she likely would have found plenty of men who appreciated her beauty and personality.
The chemistry factor
Still, even finding people who seem on paper to be compatible doesn’t mean they’ll find chemistry when they get together. No one has been able to figure out why one is drawn to one person and not another.
Says Warren, “Do I understand attraction -- is it chemical? Is it olfactory, is it aesthetic? I don’t care how compatible you are, if there’s no chemistry, don’t seal the thing: Love minus chemistry equals friendship. Don’t try to turn it into love.”
Moreover, people often start out with inherent biases that some services have incorporated into their formulas, because after all, it is a business that aims to satisfy its customers. For example, Eharmony.com only matches women with taller men -- because so many women complain if they’re set up with shorter men, says Warren. And 25% of men older than 50 say they only want to be set up with “fertile” women -- that is, younger women in their 20s and 30s, Warren says.
Men are so visual, Warren said, that they demand to see pictures with matches -- which he would rather have revealed in the latter stages of communication rather than the preliminary stages. (They can be revealed -- if a subscriber chooses to post one -- after each determines that they want to communicate with the other match.)
Some people try to outwit the tests to make themselves look better, but services with comprehensive profiles try to screen them out by asking similar questions repeatedly to get at the truth. Eharmony says it also rejects thousands of would-be subscribers who indicate they are depressed or have addiction problems. Warren says people need to be in control and relatively happy in their own lives before they can be good partners.
The Eharmony.com test takes about an hour and, by the end, can feel tedious. And that’s just the beginning. Once all the primary information is on the table, the pair communicate via Eharmony’s e-mail system several times, answering each other’s questions. If all goes well, the next step is meeting in person and determining -- within at most two dates, Warren says -- whether the person is just a “Date ... or Soul Mate?,” the title of Warren’s book that comes with a membership.
Mara Adelman, an associate professor of communications and a social psychologist at Seattle University, says this “date data-dumping” is too much, too fast, too soon.
“That initial hour -- when you’re trying to assess whether the person is going to be the father of your child -- you’re dumping a tremendous amount of data, where there is no context for the disclosure,” she says. “It puts a lot of pressure on the situation, and you don’t have any history or context to put it in.”
Instead, she says, information should be shared over time -- when one can see how a date interacts with friends and get a chance to really know him.
It remains to be seen whether marriages and relationships determined with the help of a computer algorithm will last longer than more traditional arrangements.
Eharmony says 2,500 marriages can be linked directly to its site so far, though Warren estimates there have been 10 times that many since the company was started four years ago.
Still, if the sentiments of six couples matched by Eharmony and interviewed recently are any indication, it’s not a bad start. They all seemed very much in love, finishing each other’s sentences, touching and bragging about how they seemed to be soul mates.
To be sure, maybe they are the giddiest of the giddy: Most had written Eharmony to gush about how they’d found their true loves on the site. Eharmony paid their airfare and hotel accommodations (including separate rooms for the not-yet-married couples) to bring them to Santa Monica for a professional photo shoot for future ads and to interview them for radio spots.
One benefit, agreed Cheryl and Patrick Winning, is that the personality profile helps not only in understanding their partners better, but also in helping the individuals better understand themselves and what they need in the relationship.
Most of those interviewed thought the personality assessments represented their strengths and weaknesses fairly well.
The Winnings married in January after Eharmony matched them late last summer. (He got 212 matches, she got five -- testament to the fact that Eharmony has 60% women and 40% male members. The older and more educated a person is -- particularly the woman -- the harder she is to match, Warren says.)
Patrick Winning, a divorce attorney, says he knows “all the pitfalls” of marriage. The primary factors he sees in his divorcing clients are inability to communicate and inability to manage conflict.
He also knows from personal experience: He was divorced after a two-decade marriage, as was his new wife, Cheryl. But how well could they possibly know each other after dating less than five months in which they only saw each other on weekends because he lived in St. Louis and she lived 300 miles away in Louisville?
Because of the tests and their upfront discussions, Cheryl Winning said, “I felt I knew more about Patrick than I did [my previous husband], and I was married for 21 years.”
The six couples also said they had developed passion after finding they had common ground. “It was very comfortable,” said Roger Moore. “That transition from the formality to the informality was very straightforward. And besides,” he adds, “I love her.”