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The SEARCH Engine of Love: How Long Do You Need to Spot True Love?

How long does it take to know that you’ve found The One—or someone who you might want to see for a second date?

I found the answer to this and other existential questions in the Sky Mall catalog on a flight home, sandwiched amid ads for Big Foot garden statuary and anxiety-reduction blankets for cats.

 The answer is 20 minutes. At least this is the answer provided by the largest percentage (45%) of participants in a survey sponsored by the dating service, It’s Just Lunch.

 They asked, “How much time do you need” on a first date to decide if you have interest in the person? The runner-up answer, at 33%, was “about an hour.” A ruthless 12% said “5 minutes,” and only 7% said “over an hour.”  If I were single, I’d rush into the bold, recklessly inefficient arms of the last 3% of participants, who responded, “I always agree to see someone else again.”

 The distribution of answers, which keeps the required amount of time within the standard lunch hour, suits the needs of It’s Just Lunch, since their premise is that dating is more convenient and less awkward when you can confine it to a casual lunch hour, rather than having to make the scary commitment to a dinner (and I do know at least two people who have used this service and found partners through it).

“Speed dating” makes It’s Just Lunch look like an arduous long-term relationship, however. Here, you get six minutes to prove your human value and charm.

You probably know how speed dating works. When I was working on my book I went to a trendy bar to observe it. The host organization, founded in 2000, graciously allowed me to watch without having to participate and subject myself to dating market forces.

On the first floor of the bar was the bustling, tipsy romantic melting pot of a happy hour. On the second floor was the speed dating event. Nine mostly 30-something women sat, alone and silent, at small tables. They each had a number. The exuberant scene downstairs had been rationalized into makeshift cubicles, like an office. Their would-be partners sat alone and silent at other corners of the bar, as the official event hadn’t begun. When the whistle blew (literally) the men progressed to the first station. They spent six minutes chatting, then each filled out a score card on the other, and moved to the next station.

It didn’t look like anyone made a love match that night. The event made me melancholy. These people must have come dreaming of some romantic epiphany. But their lives boiled down to a few mutually listless minutes. It seemed cruel to me, in the same way that I find agri-business to be cruel. Speed dating is to the bar scene as agri-business is to a family-run farm. It rationalizes the natural romantic chaos. You have your stall/table, and you are on the clock.  It’s a rotten thing to do to a tender heart—but that’s only my view, because speed dating remains popular, and it’s appreciated as a less harmful, efficient way to meet people.

 A lunch hour isn’t much time; six minutes even less. But you can get vastly more efficient than that, and shave minutes off of your judgments and decisions.

 AnswerLab does “neuromarketing” and is a leader in “interactive gaze technology.” They conducted a “field-based eye-tracking study” of online dating habits. They took their eye-tracking devices to a San Francisco café and had participants view different profiles from and eHarmony. Their technology allowed them to measure gaze patterns precisely, and to determine how much time each subject-consumer spent viewing different elements of each profile.

 AnswerLab discovered that women are more “careful consumers” of other humans as potential mates. Women spent nearly 50% more time than men to assess whether someone’s profile might be a match.

 But look at how much time these leisurely women spent: an average of 84 seconds. Men spent 58 seconds.

 20 minutes. Six minutes. 58 seconds. Don’t fence me in to an entire hour.

Love’s window of opportunity is shrinking. Our idea of a reasonable period of romantic exploration is metered in seconds.

It may be that we’re all just that good at appraising potential lovers, intuitively. It could be true. Or it may be that when you look for six seconds, you can find only what you expect to find, with potentially seductive quirks and depths of character remaining submerged under surface presentation.

 The mood is Tayloristic, a time-and-motion study, where efficiency is prized. There is a “getting it over with” spirit to mate selection in the new, hyper-accelerated modes.

 Love is a search. Think about the other SEARCH engines and functions in our lives. 

My WINDOWS “search” function can find an obscure phrase in a word file for me in well under a minute. That’s a sluggish pace compared to Google and other search engines.  Google quietly boasts that it found my 3,250,000 mostly irrelevant results for “plum pudding” in precisely 0.21 seconds; my inquiry about the Plevna Delay in the Russo-Turkish war found 640,000 results in 0.28 seconds.  You can’t stump Google. “What is Love” yields 3,720,000,000 results in 0.24 seconds.

 When we search for things, it takes so very little time to find them. The gap between desire, action, and gratification is so tiny. It is measured in a fraction of a second. The space between a question and its resolution is infinitesimal.

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 If this is true for plum pudding recipes, it may also be true for love. The concept of the “search” and the quest have perhaps been globally and indiscriminately accelerated by the new technologies. The pacing and plotting of life has changed, and that change isn’t easily quarantined to the office.

 I don’t want to draw the point too finely, between the fast-paced, impatient judgments of humans in romance, and the speed we’ve come to expect in other, more prosaic searches of life.

Then again, these are the algorithms of our lives. Seek and ye shall find—efficiently, and in under half a second. We can’t expect that the new means of production, and life, won’t infiltrate our hearts in unintended ways, just as the wondrous new “machine age” of the 1800s and the assembly line of the early 1900s accelerated the tempo of our lives. They made life jazzier, gave it a faster beat, and focused on ever-more minute units of time, from which efficiency and yet faster production could occur.

 The technology of our age will surely do the same, in ways that we can’t always see or appreciate when they’re happening.


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