Why Online Dating Is So Unsatisfying

Question: What did you find when you started looking into the world \r\nof online dating?
\r\n

\r\nDan Ariely: I became interested in online dating because one of \r\nthe people who were sitting in an office next to me was incredibly \r\nmiserable, and he was an assistant professor; he just moved to the \r\nuniversity where I was at; he was spending long hours; he was not \r\nfinding anybody to date; he was, couldn’t date students at the \r\nuniversity, he was a professor; he didn’t have time to go outside. You \r\nknow, we were not particularly a social bunch, you know, he was \r\nbasically stuck.  And online dating was a very promising way to think \r\nabout this solution for a marketplace that wasn’t working very well, and\r\n he tried online dating and he was just failing miserably, \r\ncontinuously.  So that kind of piqued my curiosity about it.  And then I\r\n started looking at online dating.
\r\n
\r\nSo I start looking by registering myself and looking at other people and\r\n then I said, let me ask some of my friends to enroll. So I didn’t ask \r\nthem to really enroll, I just took their profile sheets and asked \r\npeople, "Could you fill those out but without your name?"  And I took \r\npeople that I liked more and I liked less, and I took their profile and I\r\n tried to figure out could I tell the difference?  You know, now, \r\nimagine you did this.  Imagine you went to 50 people you really like and\r\n 50 people you only like so-so, and you asked all of them to fill this \r\nprofile, then you took this 100 profiles and you tried to sort them out \r\ninto piles.  Turns out we’re terrible at this!  Right?  So this is kind \r\nof an initial observation that something is going wrong in this, in this\r\n market.
\r\n
\r\nAnd then went a step further, did some studies with online daters about \r\nhow much they enjoyed it and what they were getting from it, until the \r\nfinal stage, we, I figured out, I thought I knew what was going on, \r\nwhich is that online dating sites assume that people are easy to \r\ndescribe on searchable attributes.  They think that we’re like digital \r\ncameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and \r\npolitical affiliation and so on. But it turns out people are much more \r\nlike wine.  That when you taste the wine, you could describe it, but \r\nit’s not a very useful description.  But you know if you like it or \r\ndon’t.  And it’s the complexity and the completeness of the experience \r\nthat tells you if you like a person or not.  And this breaking into \r\nattributes turns out not to be very informative.
\r\n
\r\nSo on the last stage of this process, we created a different Web site.  \r\nAnd that different website allowed people to experience other people \r\nwithout all of these attributes. And we show that this is actually much \r\nbetter and would lead to much more, much higher probability of going on a\r\n second, on a real date afterward.  So it kind of goes from an \r\nobservation to a little study, to a bit more details and then finally \r\nproposing some kind of solution of something that I think would actually\r\n work better.
\r\n
\r\nSo the site basically looks at real dates—and think about what real \r\ndates are.  They’re not about sitting in the room and interviewing each \r\nother about questions; they’re often about experiencing something \r\ntogether in the real world. And I think it’s because if you and I went \r\nout, and we went somewhere, I would look at how you react to the outside\r\n world.  What music you like, what you don’t like, what kind of pictures\r\n you like, what kind of images, how do you react to other people, what \r\ndo you do in the restaurant?  And through all these kind of non-explicit\r\n aspects, I will learn something about you and I would feel that I’m \r\nlearning something about you.  And the online system we created was very\r\n much like that.  It was about you came up and you got a little avatar, a\r\n square or a triangle, some color, and you went into a virtual space in \r\nwhich you could explore it.  And you could see lots of stuff, there were\r\n pictures and images and there were words and there movies and there \r\nwere bands, there was all kinds of stuff, and you could go and when you \r\ncame to another little avatar, you could start chatting.  And you would \r\nchat about something, it wasn’t about interviewing when you went to \r\nschool and what’s your religion; it was about talking about something \r\nelse and it turns out it gave people much more information about each \r\nother, and they were much more likely to want to meet each other for a \r\nfirst date and for a second date.
\r\n
\r\nQuestion:
What's wrong with the experience of online dating?
\r\n

\r\nDan Ariely: I think that online dating is an incredibly \r\nunsatisfying experience.  In fact, when we do surveys to understand what\r\n people do, the basic trade off is for each six hours of searching for \r\npeople and emailing them, you get one cup of coffee.  And it's not as if\r\n people enjoy online dating, it's not as if they have fun searching \r\npeople and writing blurbs for them.  I mean, imagine that you basically \r\nhad to drive six hours, three hours each way to have coffee with \r\nsomebody, and, you know, coffee usually ends up with just coffee.  It's \r\nan incredibly unsatisfying experience.  So I think it's a really bad, \r\nit's a really bad system.
\r\n
\r\nOn top of that, there's another thing, is which, imagine I gave you this\r\n search criteria, which I asked you to search by height and weight and \r\nincome and all of those things: you're going to use it. That's what I \r\ngive you to search, you're going to use it.  There's a million people \r\nout there, you want to limit them to 3,000, that's what we're going to, \r\nthat's what you're going to use.  And because of that, I think actually \r\npeople become much more superficial than we think they are.  So here's \r\nan example.  It turns out, women really care about men's height.  I’m \r\n5’9”, if I wanted to be as attractive as somebody who’s 5’10”, right, \r\nanother inch?  I would have to make about $35-40,000 more a year.  \r\nThat’s a lot of money for one inch.  At the same time, it turns out that\r\n men care a lot about women’s BMI’s.  In fact, they want women to be \r\nslightly anorexic, at like 18-1/2.  And you look at women’s \r\nattractiveness, it goes really up at low BMI and really drops below \r\nthat.
\r\n
\r\nNow, people online look incredibly superficial.  They look at hair color\r\n and they look at height and they look at income, and that’s basically \r\nit... and attractiveness, of course.  And you can ask, is it because \r\nthat’s all people care about or is that because that’s what the system \r\nis giving them to search for.  And I think it’s because of combination, \r\nright?  Sure, we are superficial, we do care about attractiveness and \r\nheight and income and these are features for us, but I think they’re \r\nexaggerated by the way the system is created.
\r\n
\r\nImagine you were looking for something else, imagine you were looking \r\nfor digital cameras, and imagine that I only allow you to search on \r\nmegapixels and f-stop for the lens, right?  These things would become \r\nincredibly important, right?  And if I drop some things from the search,\r\n they would become as if they’re not important or much less important.  \r\nSo I think part of the problem is that the systems don’t give us the \r\nright information that we need.  And because of this, I think the \r\nexperience of online dating is generally unsatisfying.  I mean, think \r\nabout it: how many millions of people are participating in this activity\r\n and marriage rates has not increased, divorce has not decreased. I \r\nmean, not really much has happened because of that.  And at the same \r\ntime, I think it’s incredibly important, right?  The dating market is \r\nperhaps the only market that we moved from a centralized market to a \r\ndecentralized market.  You know, we used to have a yenta, your parents \r\nused to tell you what to do, all this is gone, now you have to fend for \r\nyourself.  On top of that, we move a lot, right?  You go to one place \r\nfor undergrad, then you go to grad school, then you move to another city\r\n for a job, two years later you move again.  You have no time to create a\r\n social network. We work long hours, so it’s really a system where we \r\ndon’t have time to find people for ourselves. It’s taboo to date people \r\nat the work place, the social networks are weaker in the physical \r\nworld.  We move all the time and we don’t have a yenta or parents to \r\ntell us what to do.
\r\n
\r\nSo online dating are incredibly important, it could be central and \r\ncrucial and we need to create them because it’s really a miserable \r\nsituation for most single people.  At the same time, the ones that we \r\nhave created, and they all look the same basically, they’re no real \r\ndifferences between them, the ones that we are creating are just not \r\nthat useful.

Recorded on June 1, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Online dating could be a crucial tool for single people, but with the sites we have now you'll likely spend six hours searching for every date you go on.

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