Dan Ariely: Why Online Dating Is So Unsatisfying

Online dating is "an incredibly unsatisfying experience," says Duke behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, the author of "Predictably Irrational." In fact, his research has found that each date you set up using online services requires an average of six hours of searching for people and emailing with them. "I mean, imagine that you basically had to drive six hours, three hours each way to have coffee with somebody, and, you know, coffee usually ends up with just coffee." Part of the problem, according to Ariely, is the search criteria that dating sites use. By giving us superficial attributes to request in a mate, the sites tend to exaggerate our superficial tendencies.

In his most recent Big Think interview, Ariely talks at length about the issues around dating and mating, also telling us about a recent study he did that determined that people find others attractive in part based on how they perceive of their own attractiveness. "If you're [an unattractive] woman, you start valuing short men who are bald with bad teeth," says Ariely. "I mean, you just say, 'These are really wonderful features: I like hairy chests, I like bald head.'  You basically change what you like and that actually helps you adjust."

Ariely also talked about the "Ikea effect," whereby we tend to overvalue the things we ourselves make—and we tend to think others will value them highly as well. "You can think about kids like this," says Ariely. "I have two wonderful kids, I love them dearly, I think they’re amazing. When we go to a party and they dance or do something, I can’t believe that any of their parents would want to do anything but look in my kids, right?  And that’s the issue, right? They are my kids, I think they are wonderful, but, not only that, I think that other people should see them as wonderful as I see them.  And the same thing happened with origami or with everything we make, not only do we overvalue it, we think that everybody will share our perspective."

Trust and revenge also figure significantly into Ariely's research.  He says that even though both are irrational, our society depends on them to keep an equilibrium. In fact, if everyone acted rationally all the time, our society would likely be a lot less pleasant to live in, he says. That said, if we were a little more rational we might stop doing things like smoking and texting-while-driving that aren't in our best long-term interests.

Ariely also talks about how businesses behave in ways that are irrational, pointing specifically to the over-reliance by marketers on focus groups. He also notes that executive bonuses don't necessarily translate into better work or higher productivity.

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