The Psychology of Online Dating: More Than Just Long Walks on the Beach
As recently as 10 or 15 years ago, online dating was marginalized in most circles. But today, with more than 1 in 10 adults using online dating sites according to a study by Pew Research Center, online dating has become less stigmatized.
So have we learned anything since the first dating site was launched in 1995, 20 years ago? Or is internet dating just a new medium for the same old behavior? Turns out, a lot of the same mating psychology applies, with a few exceptions.
For the most part, research and the dating sites themselves agree that the biggest difference in online dating vs. traditional dating is an increase in the size of the dating pool. Traditionally, the dating pool consists of classmates, workmates, neighbors and acquaintances, depending on where you live and work (rural vs. urban) that could vary from a few hundred to thousand potential mates. Online dating can increase your dating pool to literally hundreds of thousands, again, depending on your zip code and the level of “filters” for age range and other preferences.
What some of the early dating sites may have gotten “wrong” according to newer research conducted since its inception and wider use, is trying to replace intuitive mating habits and psychology with an algorithm of likes and dislikes. A study by Eli Finkel of Northwestern University and his colleagues published by the Association for Psychological Science reported there was no evidence that these algorithms improve the matchmaking process over any other approach. And a study from the Pew Research Center reported as recently as April of 2015 that only 5% of Americans who are in a marriage or committed relationship report they met their significant other online.
Interestingly, newer dating software has gone back to a more traditional model of dating – evaluating looks first. These new websites and apps provide very little profile information with the majority of the focus on a quick evaluation of a picture to initiate contact. But, because many of these are now apps used on mobile phones, a gamification behavior has resulted – where the process of rating profiles or amassing “followers” or “likes” has become the goal as opposed to actually meeting offline and pursuing a relationship – a behavior now known as “relationshopping.” Which also falls in line with the Pew report that despite these new tools, the majority of relationships are beginning offline, with 88% of Americans with a partner for five years or less reporting they met without the help of a dating site or app.
Also, it’s possible that in a reaction to initial myths or stigma surrounding online dating and the myth that more people lied online about themselves to increase their attractiveness, from simple things like height or weight to larger ones like education, professional and income – online daters have become more savvy. In a study done at the University of Iowa, researchers reported users were “turned off” by profiles that sounded “too good to be true.” Researchers found the more specific information a profile contained that could be traced to a real person, the more the viewer trusted the profile and rated it positively. According to Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychology professor at Brandies University, we also know that people may prefer highly attractive people both online or offline, but generally end up paired with people who are similar in level of attractiveness.
Overall, researchers and the online sites and apps themselves agree that the best dating site is simply a means to an end – and that the majority of what makes up chemistry and compatibility must be assessed face to face before a relationship can begin. For the most part, online dating has impacted mostly behavior in just the earliest stages of dating. Online dating researcher, Professor and Director of Social Psychology Eli Finkel may have said it best when speaking to The Atlantic in The Psychologist’s Guide to Online Dating when he said “Find somebody who seems cute, and then get face-to-face to assess whether there’s actual compatibility.”