The nearly 200-page report, published Monday in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found that the main advantage that dating Web sites offer singles is access to a huge pool of potential partners. But the sites also reduce daters into two-dimensional profiles and often overwhelms them with potential choices.
Some sites claim to have developed scientific algorithms that can help people find soul mates, an assertion the study’s five authors say is not possible and could be damaging.
“Online dating is good. I’m very, very glad it exists. It gives opportunities to singles who otherwise wouldn’t have them,” says Eli J. Finkel, an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University and the study’s lead author. “The problem is that the way online dating is implemented undermines some amount of its goodness.”
People have always needed help looking for love. Parents and village elders used to play matchmaker. As people became more self-reliant and transient, they turned to singles ads and dating services.
The advent of the Internet and inception of Match.com in 1995 prompted a sea change. For a few years, online dating seemed like the bastion of the geeky and desperate, but the stigma passed. By 2005, 37 percent of single, American Internet users had used online dating sites, according to the Pew Research Center. And of the U.S. couples who formed relationships between 2007 and 2009, 22 percent of them met online, one academic study found. It was second only to “meeting through friends” as a way of finding a partner.
The report by Finkel’s team, a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies related to online dating and relevant human behavior, says that in just one month last year, there were 25 million people using online dating sites.
This is especially good, the authors say, for those who might otherwise have a hard time meeting people — single parents, workaholics, those who are new in town, recently divorced or not heterosexual.
As one single man says in the report, “Where else can you go in a matter of 20 minutes, look at 200 women who are single and want to go on dates?”
But the process doesn’t necessarily help form strong relationships. Browsing through profile after profile “can result in the objectification of potential partners,” the study says. And the average online dater spends 12 hours a week at the endeavor.
“It really feels like a full-time job sometimes,” says Frances Correa, a 24-year-old reporter, who lives in Northwest Washington and stopped online dating after four years. “Maybe after 50 different guys you’ve been conversing with, one might be worth a date.”
What’s more, it’s not always good to have more choices. In one oft-cited experiment, people who chose a sample from six kinds of chocolate were more satisfied with their treat than those who chose from 30 options. Similarly, the report says, “people become cognitively overwhelmed” as they scan dozens of profiles.