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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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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