By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a woman looking for a new boyfriend and considering various online dating sites. Some have long questionnaires, and they factor your answers into an “algorithm” to match you with the best possible partner. Are these sites significantly better than the others?—Site Seeker
A: Most people will tell you that they want to be accepted for who they really are—yet those doing online dating rarely post profiles with stuff like, “I like long walks on the beach, fine dining, and obscenely large breasts.”
In light of this, sites using these compatibility “algorithms” would seem to have some added value. However, according to a massive online dating analysis by social psychologist Eli Finkel and his colleagues, this algorithm stuff mainly seems to be a “science!”-flavored marketing ploy. The researchers explain that it’s “virtually impossible” for sites to do what they promise with these algorithms: “Match people who are uniquely suited to one another” and who are likely to have a “satisfying and lasting long-term relationship” together.
As the Finkel team notes about the “uniquely suited” business: The evidence suggests that these algorithms are really no better at rooting out compatible partners than the matching most people already do themselves with sites’ search parameters—culling the herd of breathing, profile-posting humans down to, say, fellow Ph.D.s who are also weekend Satan worshippers.
Even more outrageous is the sites’ claim that this mathematical alchemy can identify two people who can have a lasting, happy relationship together who have yet to even meet. The researchers point out that the algorithms only measure the “individual characteristics of partners” (personality, attitudes, values, background). They note that this is just one of three essential variables that determine whether relationships sink or swim.
The other two are elements that can’t really be sussed out before two people are in a relationship. One is the “circumstances surrounding (a) couple”—like how they fit into each other’s family and whether one loses their job or goes through other major stressors. The other factor is the “interactions between the partners”—how partners communicate, solve problems and support each other.
I would add an essential fourth factor that needs to be assessed face to face—physical attraction. So, regarding those “29 dimensions of compatibility!” that one site advertises, consider, if you will, 30 and 31: Discovering “this must be what dead bodies smell like when the detectives cover their nose with a hanky on TV,” and “I’m as sexually attracted to you as I am to a stalk of wheat.”
There’s also the “garbage in, garbage out” problem (statisticians’ shorthand for how poor-quality input leads to poor-quality output). It’s unlikely that people are any more honest and accurate in filling out these questionnaires than they are in their online dating profiles.
Typically, deception in online dating profiles is intentional; sometimes we can’t quite see ourselves as we really are. For example, take an item on one of these sites’ compatibility surveys: “I try to accommodate the other person’s position.”
There are seven little circles on a scale to blacken in, from “not at all” to “very well.” Well, OK, but do control freaks always understand that they’re control freaks? Sometimes somebody seriously controlling might fill in “very well” on “I try to accommodate … ” simply because they see themselves in the best light—instead of the actual light: “I’m Stalin—though I’ve never been able to grow much of a mustache.”
Probably the best that can be said about these personality questionnaires is that they might lead you into a little helpful introspection. But otherwise, these tests seem as pointless as they are grueling.
This isn’t to knock online dating itself, which offers really rapid, easy access to a lot of potential partners whom you’d probably never meet otherwise. However, it helps to have a smart strategy vis-a-vis the potential pitfalls, and that’s meeting any person you think might be a possibility ASAP (before you have any long, bond-y text-athons).
Meeting pronto gives you the best shot at seeing whether you click, as well as spotting any vast differences between profile and reality. And as I always advise about first dates, keep it cheap, short and local. Less investment means less disappointment if you find out a guy’s lying—or, maybe worse, if he’s being honest: He really is looking for his “partner in crime”—because one of the guys on his robbery crew got arrested last week.