Online dating has its pros and cons, meta-analysis says

Social scientists have confirmed what most singletons have known for years: Online dating is a crapshoot.

A new analysis of 400 academic studies explores whether online dating represents a dramatic shift in the way people seek mates (it does) and whether it is ultimately a good thing for daters (eh . . . sorta).

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.

“You end up a bit less satisfied with the thing you choose — like your chocolate or romantic partner. And you’re less likely to commit to that option,” Finkel says. “It’s like, ‘Eh, there’s something better out there,’ or ‘I’m overloaded.’ ”

The online dating industry’s reliance on profiles is what Finkel calls its “first original sin.” People naturally try to present a polished version of themselves, often stretching the truth on matters such as age, weight and height. But the bigger problem is that no profile can transmit the full essence of a human being.

“You get people online who think they know what they want in a partner, but that’s not going to dovetail with what actually inspires their attraction when they meet a flesh-and-blood person,” Finkel says.

Monika Lupean, a 54-year-old yoga instructor from Maryland, has experienced that problem repeatedly in her four years of online dating. “It seems like the more I have in common with someone on paper, the less I actually have in common with them in person,” she says. Once, she met a man online who was a yoga enthusiast who owned the same books she did. “We met in person, and there was actually no chemistry.”

Online dating also differs from traditional courtship in that people get to know one another before they meet, trading e-mails and photos. When people exchanged e-mails for three weeks before meeting, the study says, they had a stronger attraction to their date in person, but if the correspondence went on for six weeks, the attraction level fell when they met. “When it goes on too long you get too lofty an impression of what a person is like, or too particular,” Finkel says.

Lupean has learned her lesson on that front. “In the beginning, I had these long, flowery e-mail relationships, and then I met the person and it was like, ‘Oh, my God. Who is this?’ ” Now she meets men in person as soon as she can.

Finkel’s “second original sin” of online dating is the promotion of scientific algorithms for compatibility. Some sites, such as eHarmony, match people based on similarities. Others, such as Chemistry, use complementary personality facets to set up singles.

The study found that none of these factors can be predictive of long-term relationship success. “At the end of the day, similarity predicts very, very little,” Finkel says.

Four years ago Sunday, Andrew Martin and Julie Ciamporcero Avetta were matched on eHarmony.

She fitted none of his top criteria — “He said he liked baseball, grilling and political activism,” she recalls. “At the time, I was a vegetarian and knew nothing about baseball and cared very little for politics” — but they fell in love and were married less than two years later. They can’t imagine how they would’ve met without online dating.

“We got so lucky,” she says. “But I don’t know how much eHarmony could have predicted of what we ultimately had in common.”

Their daughter, Natalie, was born a year ago. And to this day, Avetta says, her eHarmony subscription fee is “the best $100 I’ve ever spent.”

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