Online dating’s promise -- and pitfalls


Online dating has come a long way from its less-than-positive association with the personal ad. But is it actually a better way to meet that special someone?

In some ways yes -- and in others, maybe not, according to a study on online dating released by the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

“Romantic relationships can begin anywhere. When Cupid’s arrow strikes, you might be at church or at school, playing chess or softball, searching for a partner at a party, or minding your own business on the train,” the authors write. “But sometimes Cupid goes on vacation, or takes a long nap, or kicks back for a marathon of Lifetime original movies. As a result, people go through stretches of time when desirable potential partners seem out of reach.”

Many dating sites, like or eHarmony, purport to have an advantage over random real-life encounters in that they employ special “algorithms” that can help people find their “match” -- weeding through all the people who wouldn’t be compatible in the first place. But this practice might be grossly misleading and even counterproductive -- especially since none of these formulas has undergone rigorous scientific review -- according to the study.

“The ready access to a large pool of potential partners can elicit an evaluative, assessment-oriented mindset that leads online daters to objectify potential partners and might even undermine their willingness to commit to one of them,” the authors write in the study led by Eli Finkel of Northwestern University. “It can also cause people to make lazy, ill-advised decisions when selecting among the large array of potential partners.”

It’s reminiscent of other work by Finkel, which found, among other things, that such apparently trivial distinctions made a difference. For example, women go for men who gaze away from the camera -- the broody, mysterious look -- while men respond to women who smile at the camera, because it triggers what Finkel called “men’s ‘sexual over-perception bias.’”

But the fact that these sites provide singles with unprecedented access to others who also want to date means that singles have far more opportunities to meet and form a lasting bond than they would otherwise, the authors point out. If there’s interest, the trick might be to take things off-line as quickly as possible -- because a face-to-face interaction is a better way to “get a clearer sense of their romantic potential.”

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