OkCupid’s dating research blog has worked hard to convince readers that they should never pay for online dating. The basis of their argument is that there are just too few subscribers on fee-for-service dating sites to make it worth the lonely single's while. I won’t argue their point on that—after all they have a flow chart, and at one point I am pretty sure they used calculus to figure out the number of subscribers (which even I think is a bit audacious). So we will let them have that point: there are fewer potential matches on fee-for-service dating sites.
There is an argument to be made, though, that if you do find a match on an online dating site, that match is more likely to commit to meet if they have paid a fee for the service.
A study published last year tests this theory in an online dating simulation where a participant "pays" a fee to search online for potential dates after answering a series of questions describing their perfect mate. At the end of the search they are informed that a match has been found but that he/she does not have all the qualities the participant is has been searching for (I think we all can relate to that experience). At this point in the simulation the participant is informed that a friend would like to set them up on a blind date with a person who is absolutely perfect in terms of their criterion for a mate. Participants then have to choose how much time they are willing to commit the inferior date from the online service and the superior match that is the blind date. They only have an hour total to split.
It turns out that a person’s preference for the online date is correlated with how much they had invested in the service. Those who paid nothing, or very little, for the search were much less willing to choose the online date over the blind date than those who paid a higher fee. For example, the length of time men in the study chose to commit to the date arranged online was 28 minutes when the cost was $0, and almost 49 minutes when the cost was $50. The length of time women in the study chose to commit to the online date 13 minutes when the cost was $0, and 28 minutes when the cost was $50.
I know that you thinking "Hold the phone! Rational people don’t take sunk costs into consideration when they make decisions!" What can I say? People aren’t always rational, and even if they were the decisions involving human relations just might prove to be the exception.
Sunk cost effects disappear over time, so if you are looking for match online you should look for a site that charges a monthly fee, instead of a one-time upfront fee.
In Halifax, where I live, men pay significantly less for some online dating services than women do. I am sure that the real reason for this is, as a friend of mine likes to say, in this town any man with a job and his own teeth can find a good women. This research suggests though that if a fee is used to encourage commitment, men need far less of an incentive than women do.
Coleman, Martin (2009). “Sunk Cost and Commitment to Dates Arranged Online.” Current Psychology Vol. 28 (1): 45–54.