I haven’t thought about dating in a while. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been married for six years. I met my wife in an old-fashioned way: at work. I had the type of the job that was satirized in the movie Office Space. The clock never seemed to move. I’d stare at my computer screen for eight hours waiting for my shift to end. Tina provided much-needed relief from the drudgery of my cubicle existence. These days, the word “date” means that we have a babysitter for a few hours, giving us time to grab a cheeseburger and a beer.
I have no experience with online dating, and before I watched this video interview of Dan Ariely I had never heard a scholar talk about it. Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has studied online dating and makes some really interesting comments about the subject in the interview.
Ariely points out that typical online dating websites break people down into “searchable attributes” such as height, weight, income, and political views. These websites operate on the mistaken assumption that people are easy to describe on the basis of such attributes. He uses wine for an analogy. You might be able to describe the wine you drink, but that doesn’t matter very much. What matters is that you know if you like it or you don’t.
He thinks that’s kind of like dating. Being able to describe a person based on a set of characteristics isn’t very useful. It’s the full experience of spending time with someone that tells you whether you like a person or not. It’s not a simple matter of someone being the “perfect” weight and having the “right” eye color. In Ariely’s opinion, breaking people into attributes turns out not to be informative. What’s informative is what happens when you share an experience with someone.
Ariely concludes that people have unsatisfying experiences with online dating. Although websites can match people based on their preferences, they can’t predict if people will actually like each other in the real world. Sure, you can pick someone online who is tall, has brown eyes, and hair that looks great to you, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy that person’s company when you’re on a date.
Something I found really fascinating in the interview was Ariely’s discussion of whether people are superficial. Consider, after all, that people do search for potential dates in terms of hair color, body type, and income. Realistically, he says, people are superficial; for example, generally speaking, women prefer tall men and men prefer skinny women. So women and men both search out partners based on features they find physically attractive.
However, in defense of online daters, Ariely makes a good point: if that’s the search criteria available to people to use, then they’re going to use it. Naturally, a lot of people will have preferences when it comes to hair color, height, and weight. So it’s not that people who use online dating are more superficial than any other group of people. Rather, he believes the typical online dating system exaggerates our tendency to be superficial.
Did you notice the comments from people who reacted to Ariely’s interview? I found a few of them to be very interesting. For instance, a man named Mark said: “I think online dating is unsatisfying for most people because dating in general is unsatisfying for most people.” Think about all of your dating experiences: have most of them been satisfying or disappointing? And, if you have online dating experience, did the outcome of those dates differ significantly from dates that came about in other ways?
A comment I found especially insightful was made by Elizabeth, who said: “Perhaps one of the best things about dating online is that one can know the deal breakers (smoking, drinking, how many kids, etc.) before falling for someone, before attempting to justify a relationship that won’t work.” That strikes me as an intelligent point. Honestly speaking, isn’t it true there are certain things about potential dating partners that you won’t accept?
I asked my friend Don about this. Don is a 38-year-old never married man who has accumulated vast dating experience. A few years ago he was in a serious relationship that soured because he doesn’t want to have kids. In essence, the fact that he doesn’t want children was a deal breaker in that relationship. He recently set a date using the free dating website called Plenty of Fish. He described his date as a “very pretty, 40-year-old Pilates instructor who doesn’t want kids.”
I asked Don if he thought there were such things as “deal makers.” In other words, if having kids (or wanting to have kids) is a deal breaker for some people, couldn’t we say that not wanting kids is a “deal maker” for other people?
Fair enough, he responded, but in his dating experience, he finds that people tend to focus on differences rather than commonalities. He wonders if this is because people are trying to find the absolutely perfect match. Because technology enables people to access an unlimited number of people, maybe they feel they should hold out for Mr. or Ms. Perfect.
When I told Don I was writing a blog about online dating, he said: “Yeah, because you know so much about that.” He was teasing me because I haven’t been on a date with someone other than my wife since 2000, when I met her. I replied: “Well, suppose I wanted to cheat. You know there are websites that cater to married people, right?” Although I have no plans to destroy my marriage, I have heard radio advertisements of a website tailored to people in relationships. The website AshleyMadison.com uses the trademarked slogan “Life is short. Have an affair.” Isn’t that lovely?
An article in Time asserts that “cheating has never been easier” now that the AshleyMadison website has applications for iPhone and Blackberry. The site has 4 million members and includes options for males seeking males and females seeking females. I guess cheating is for everyone! Watch CEO Noel Biderman get grilled by the hosts of The View (a person involved with a website that facilitates cheating makes an easy target). He downplays the influence of the website by saying “AshleyMadison.com didn’t invent infidelity.” Touché.
Members purchase cards with phrases and give them to people they encounter in everyday life. One example is “I am totally cooler than your date.” See someone in a restaurant who you think is good-looking? Walk by someone on the street that looks interesting? Simply hand them a card with an identification code that allows the person to find you on the website. Lori Cheek, the founder of the website, says: “It’s almost like you’re shopping online, but you’re shopping in real life.” Cool idea, I guess it gives new meaning to “pick up lines.” I wonder if they have a card that says “Are you from Tennessee? Because you’re the only 10 I see.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
I know of two couples who were definitely satisfied with their online dating experiences. Heather and Brian (pictured on their wedding day) met on eHarmony, have been married for over a year, and are expecting their first child soon. Heather explained something she and her husband liked about eHarmony: “We both agree now that many of the things that their questionnaire asked about definitely make us more compatible than some other couples that we know. They focused on values and how we viewed the roles of husband and wife.” As for Jonathan and Nhein, they met on Match.com and then married. No kids yet, but they have a cute little dog!
Do you know anyone who has tried online dating? If so, what has their experience been like? What can we infer about the sociological meanings of relationships?