Choosing a date online is like buying jam

Online dating ought to make Valentine's Day easier for singles. And for those who have clicked their way to love online, it has. But replacing serendipity – or a blind date – with the power of matching algorithms and countless choices isn't necessarily a recipe for romance.

The reason? Maybe the old breakup cliché applies: "It's not you; it's me." But in this case, it's not just "me" but "all of us." The way we humans have traditionally chosen a companion offline seems to be at odds with the way we do it online – and although technology changes quickly, we do not. Millions of us look for love online, but the critical difference in how we connect via the Internet is only just beginning to be understood.

Consider the element of choice. A generation ago, a single in search of romance might encounter a dozen or so potential partners. Today, he or she can choose from among thousands. But can all these choices add up to blissful companionship for everyone? A study of jam suggests an intriguing answer.

Gourmet jam isn't much like a mate, but in a study by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper of Columbia University and Stanford University, respectively, customers presented with only a few flavors at a supermarket display were much more likely to buy some jam and also more likely to enjoy it, even though displays with more varieties caught their interest more at first. One possible explanation: When your choices are strawberry, blueberry, and peach, you're more likely to have a clear preference. When mixed berry and apricot are added to the mix, you may wonder whether one of those is a better choice.

No one can say with certainty whether you will be less satisfied when you choose from among the tremendous variety of potential partners on an online dating site, but the jam study does highlight the irrationality (or perhaps just nonrationality) underlying some of our decisionmaking. Finding a partner is not a simple matter of selecting the person who fits us best according to some objective criteria; if this were the case, then having more options would certainly lead to a better decision. The circumstances surrounding our decision influence our satisfaction, regardless of the qualities of the person – or preserves – we have chosen.

In selecting romantic partners, we're all influenced – consciously or not – by criteria such as physical attractiveness, shared interests, or even fashion. When we face the task of choosing a potential mate from among hundreds or thousands of eligible singles on an online dating site, our minds can't help but attempt to evaluate these people using these familiar criteria.

But what happens when familiar criteria encounter unfamiliar forms of information? Theories of social communication suggest that we will make meaning from whatever data we have about another person, however limited it is. And almost all forms of computer-mediated communication convey less information than face-to-face conversation. When we perceive a potential mate through a computer-mediated environment, we infer all sorts of things about the person, but often with scant basis for our conclusions. Research in online communication suggests that perhaps we fill in the blanks optimistically. That is, when we know little about the people we encounter online, we imagine them to be who we want them to be. If online daters are less than honest, it only compounds the problem.

It's common to claim that everyone lies in online dating profiles. And a recent study by psychologist Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and others, supports the notion that most people lie about basic characteristics such as weight, height, and age. The lies tend to be strategic little fibs, however, not whoppers. But maybe it's not just other people's lies that lead to first-date disappointment. Maybe strategic fibs by online daters combine with our own optimistic inferences to create an unrealistic level of attraction before we even meet. The potential result: disappointment.

But don't give up on online dating just yet. It has tremendous potential to help us in our search for partners, whether for a date or for a lifetime. It cuts across social networks to introduce us to people we would never otherwise meet. It offers a catalog of people bigger than any singles group.

The question is: How can we overcome the burden of having too many choices and yet not enough information to build realistic expectations? Well, those of us who study what predicts attraction and satisfying relationships will continue our research. Perhaps one day we'll be able to tell you whether you'll feel butterflies in your stomach – before you get to that initial meeting. In the meantime, it might just take a lot of good old-fashioned first dates.

Andrew T. Fiore is a PhD student at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies the social psychology of computer-mediated communication and wrote his master's thesis on online dating at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass.

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