Why We’re Still Single, Part I

I can’t shake this feeling that access to online dating is actually making it more difficult for men and women to find love. I know that sounds counterintuitive, especially from a market perspective, but what should have been a useful tool to encourage matching has encouraged a response that is best described as “relationship greed”. And that effect has left many singles still searching long after they would have found a partner on a traditional dating market.

Online dating sites like to claim that they effectively help singles find love. The problem with evidence that supports that claim is that its metric is the share of married couples that met online – that is the total number of married couples who met online divided by the total number of married couples – as proof that online dating works.

That, however, is a skewed measure of success for online dating sites that would be best replaced with a measure that is the share of all searching singles that ultimately met a relationship partner online – the total number of married couples who met online divided by the total number of potential married couples.

I haven’t seen any evidence of the success of online dating using the second measure and, in a period in which the rate of singlehood is increasing, we have good reason to be suspicious as to whether or not the first measure is really capturing an increase in marriage rates as the result of access to bigger markets.

Over the next couple of posts I am going to talk about the broader negative effect of online dating on dating markets and finish up with a discussion of how online dating might be improving marriage even if it doesn’t necessarily increase the rate at which couples match.

To start, let’s talk about how people behave when they are faced with a large number of choices on the dating market – they start by limiting their available options.

Online daters are not really looking for the needle in the haystack as much as they are looking to eliminate the pieces of straw as quickly as possible to reveal the hidden needle. Eliminating available options can be extremely time consuming in a large market so they find ways to filter out unwanted matches quickly by filtering searches and scanning profiles for reasons to reject rather than for reasons to accept.

The problem with this approach that focuses on a “must have” list of qualities is that it fails to recognize that the value of qualities a person possesses are not absolute but rather relative to other qualities.

For example, a man might want a woman who describes herself as slender and shares his avid interest in traveling and so limits his search for women who are slender and who list traveling as one of their interests. Both of these qualities might be important to him, but chances are one is more important than the other. If he had been searching for a woman using a more traditional method he might have met a woman whose passion for travel more than made up for her curvy figure and they could have formed a happy union. Because he is filtering online, however, he never has a chance to even see her profile, never mind hear about the year she spent traveling in South America.

Filtering searches might not sound like relationship greed, but it is in the sense that we want it all. The problem with this approach is that when we filter we lose out on the opportunity to find someone who actually has more of what we are looking for rather than someone who has less.

I can always tell if a man that I am on a date with has spent too much time on the online dating market. Instead of taking the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company these men seem to spend the entire date mentally checking off boxes, almost like they are conducting an interview that would allow them to complete a online dating profile for me when they get home. I don’t know when a date became more like a job interview than an opportunity to seduce the member of the opposite (or same) sex, but I am pretty sure it started with online dating.

Next up, waiting for Mr./Ms Right.

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