Online dating has upended traditional matchmaking, new research suggests, with more would-be suitors embracing the notion that Mr. or Ms. Right may only be a click away. A review of roughly 400 studies and surveys reveals that for an estimated 25 million users around the world, the online dating scene has gone mainstream, shedding all vestiges of stigma. Online dating is now second only to direct introductions though friends as a means of lighting the candle of romance. However, the investigating team cautions that matchmaking sites may foster unrealistic expectations, while boasting of allegedly “scientific” dating formulas that are misleading and unproven.
“What we found is that online dating is a terrific and accepted addition to the ways people can meet,” said study lead author Eli Finkel, an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “It helps all kinds of people get access to potential partners they might not otherwise have met. And it also tends to be particularly helpful to people who have idiosyncratic needs, such as same-sex partners or those who struggle with certain handicaps.”
On the other hand, Finkel added, “many of the online industry sites say that they have used science to figure out who is compatible with you. And they make a lot of money with those claims. But the reality is they have presented no evidence to back up their notion of a ‘special sauce’. And our review actually suggests that it’s almost impossible that what they claimed they’ve figured out actually works, or that there’s anything to it.” The study appears in the February issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. While less than 1 percent of Americans met mates via printed personals in the early 1990s, by 2005 a whopping 37 percent of singles said they had embarked on a date initiated in an online connection. One study from Stanford University found that between 2007 and 2009, more than one in five straight couples said they had met their current mate online. Among gay couples that figure rose to more than 60 percent.
A gender divide existed in approaches to online dating, with men sifting through three times as many online profiles as women. Men were 40 percent more likely to get in touch with a woman after checking out her profile than women were after reviewing a male prospect. Finkel and colleagues found not a single reliable published study that backed up, with detailed evidence, claims that sites had developed a “scientific” method for boosting one’s dating odds. Such claims, they warned, are usually made by dating websites themselves, based on self-generated “secret” information that has never been vetted. Jeffrey Hall, an assistant professor in communication studies at the University of Kansas, said online dating’s popularity should be seen in the context of changing social norms.
“A lot of research loses sight of how amazing it is that something that was once the domain of creeps and losers is now fully incorporated as a functional part of our lives,” he said. “And this study does a great job of showing us just how dramatically things have changed over the course of the last 15 years.” “There’s an increased need for young people to find somebody to date as they spend a longer time between school and marriage,” Hall said. “And they’re increasingly comfortable using the Internet to do just that. Young adults are very comfortable using online media to present themselves and creating an online profile.” “One of the benefits is that shy or introverted people can put their best foot forward,” Hall said. But the downside, he said, “is that people are going to be more shallow, and maybe use bad cues when making decisions, like focusing too much on how attractive someone is.” “What the Internet does is help people skip right to the first date. It helps people muster the courage to ask someone out,” he concluded.