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Experiences with online dating tend to be mixed. Some people have excellent experiences with online dating that end in satisfying relationships. Others have stories filled with confusion and frustration. Thus, much like any other way to date, meeting someone online has both benefits and drawbacks.
So, how does someone date online successfully? As it turns out, a simple analysis of the pros and cons of online dating can help out a great deal. Fortunately, the psychological research just happens to have such an analysis.
An Analysis of Online Dating
Finkel and associates (2012) put together an extremely comprehensive review of the literature investigating various aspects of online dating. The goal of their review was to evaluate whether online dating was 1) fundamentally different from face-to-face dating and 2) was superior. Results of their assessment indicated that dating online was indeed different from "traditional" dating in a number of ways. It also provided some superior features and potential problems.
Overall, Finkel and associates (2012) found that online dating differed in three main areas:
Pros: Online dating provided individuals with access to many more potential partners than they could often find in their daily lives. This is especially true for individuals interested in partners of a particular type, orientation, lifestyle, or in isolated areas.
Cons: The choices of partners can become confusing and overwhelming. Without a clear plan, online daters can get stuck endlessly "shopping" for the perfect partner, rather than actually starting a satisfying relationship.
Pros: Many online dating sites offer various types of personality testing and matching. Such matching can help guide individuals toward dating partners who may be more compatible.
Cons: Matching is a difficult process and testing may not be accurate for everyone. In addition, people may present differently in person or change over time. So, matching may overlook potentially good partners in the process.
Pros: Online dating offers a number of ways to get to know a potential date before meeting in person. Such computer-mediated communication allows for safe and convenient interaction, without much risk or time commitment. For the busy professional, or the safety-conscious, such communication is an excellent way to "test" potential partners.
Cons: Communication through computers is lacking some of the information provided in face-to-face interaction. As a result, it is harder to evaluate a potential match online. Also, some of the cues and features that build attraction (like touching) cannot be accomplished through a computer. So, such computer-mediated communication may have an artificial and unemotional quality.
Using Online Dating to Your Advantage
Clearly, the features of online dating have both costs and benefits. So, how do you make the most of your dating experience online? Here are a few suggestions...
Access - Having choices is wonderful, but keep them manageable. If you want an actual face-to-face dating interaction, then don't get stuck endlessly "browsing" online. Instead, narrow your search to a small location, or a certain set of "must have" features. After your narrow it down, rather than just "shopping", talk to those who make the list. To ensure success among your many options, make sure you have at least a general idea of what you're looking for in a partner, and what you are offering them too. (For more on those topics, see here, here, and here).
Matching - Online tests may not be able to tell you your perfect match, but they can help narrow down the options. In particular, such testing often identifies potential daters who would be a poor relationship partner for anyone. Thus, while you may have to date a few matches to find out who is a good fit for you, matching can help you avoid those who might be a disaster. Beyond that, it might be best to trust your unconscious feelings too as your implicit "gut reactions" can have a big impact on attraction. (For more, see here and here).
Communication - Online communication is designed to make an initial connection, not set the foundation for a whole relationship. So, keep initial online conversation focused on finding out the basics quickly, then setting up an actual date. Generally, a few short emails or quick conversations will suffice. Long introductory emails may be counter-productive and off-putting too. Save it for a date. If you are crunched for time, then meet for coffee (see here). If you still have safety concerns, meet in a public place. (For more on asking for a date, see here).
Overall, it is important to remember that online dating is best used as a resource to meet individuals for eventual face-to-face dating. Keeping that goal in mind will prevent you from getting stuck on the drawbacks and limitations of dating online. So, if you get confused, the best next step is always to move an interaction toward a date. If you are overwhelmed with access to too many choices, then find a way to narrow them down and find better matches. If you don't know what to do with a potential match, send them a quick communication. If you get frustrated with talking online, then suggest a meeting in person. Follow that process and you will more easily find a satisfying connection online and face-to-face too.
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Until next time...happy dating and relating!
Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor
Previous Articles from The Attraction Doctor
- Finkel, E.J., Eastwick, P.W., Karney, B., Reis, H.T., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science, 13(1), 3-66.
© 2014 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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.”