© 2018 SMART Labs @ Wayne. Photos by Jake Mulka.

title. Decision Making in Online Dating

date. 11.07.2016

author. Stephanie Tong (stephanie.tong@wayne.edu)

Online dating today can feel like a trip to restaurant. A restaurant with a fabulously extensive menu. So many options! How will I ever choose my appetizer or entrée? After thinking through various options, you become overwhelmed. You then contemplate just going with the chicken (because, well, doesn’t everything taste like chicken anyway?). Finally at some point, you give up on this menu (TL;DR) and you ask the waiter to choose for you.

 

In modern day life, choices can feel like they are going to infinity and beyond, and not necessarily in a good way. Oddly enough, this “paradox of choice” occurs because as humans, we have evolved to really like (sometimes demand) choice, but become overwhelmed if there is too much of it it. We like choice because it gives us a sense of control and agency over our otherwise chaotic world. Interestingly, this problem of overchoice is a common one that many daters report. Online dating sites and apps are aware of this, so they have developed different system designs to help you in your search for love. For example, Tinder and Match.com are see-and-screen sites that provide you with access to a big pool and a bunch of filters. While they might help by narrowing the pool down to, like, 500 brunettes, you still have to look through the profiles yourself. On the other hand, eHarmony is an algorithmic site—you pay for the privilege of their algorithm that matches you with a single potential partner based on what you said you wanted. It’s like the waiter choosing the entrée for you (but when it’s not what you wanted, you can’t send it back to the kitchen). Some other sites like OkCupid blend the two designs, providing algorithmically generated matching scores with each potential profile, but you still have to screen each one and ultimately, you decide which potential mate you want to talk to.

 

Interestingly enough, daters react differently to different designs. Across two studies, we looked at how daters react to these three different websites. You might think that in comparison to choosing our own potential dates, having an algorithm choose for us isn’t such a good thing—particularly when to comes to love (I mean, dinner is one thing, my romantic happiness is something else entirely). So we gathered some online daters and split them into three groups:

  1. In the see-and-screen group, daters were given access to a group of profiles and told to pick their own favorite person

  2. Those in the algorithm group were given a single pre-selected date that was selected by the computer*

  3. Those in the blended group were given access to the whole pool, but were also told which particular person was the “best possible match” based on their profile data*

 

*Notably, this was all bogus—there was no algorithm, there was no real match made based on anyone’s data. We just wanted to see what people would do when we told them that they were matched by an algorithm, but we didn't actually have one. Was that mean? Yeah, I guess so, it’s a little mean to lie to people. But don't worry, we revealed this to our participants in the end!* 

 

so what did we find? who was the most satisfied with their choice?

 

Well, if you thought that those picking their own potential dates from the see-and-screen site were pretty happy with their choice, you were right. The daters in this group liked the control they had over the mate selection process, and they were pretty excited about their final guy/girl. If you thought that those in the algorithm group were pretty happy with those machine-recommended mates, you were right too! Even though daters in this group gave up control over mate selection, they didn’t mind so much. Turns out, it can be kinda nice having someone (or something) narrow the pool down for you, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

 

And if you thought blended sites were going to provide the “best of both worlds”—well, then #winning. Yes, blended sites had an even greater effect on decision making satisfaction compared to see-and-screen sites. In essence, OkCupid allows you to maintain control over your mate selection, but also provides some algorithmic aid during the process to help manage the dating scene. That right there tells you why all three designs—Match.com, eHarmony, and OkCupid—are all available and thriving in the online dating market.

 

Bottom line, think about what makes you the most satisfied when you have to make choices. Do you want to be a control freak and look through it all yourself? Let the algorithm be your wing man? A little bit of both?  Well, I guess if all else fails, just close your eyes and point. Everything tastes like chicken, anyway.

For the nitty gritty details, read the full study here.

It was published as an online first in November 2016 in the journal Personal Relationships.