Why Online Dating Is So Unsatisfying

Behavioral Psychology
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.
  • Transcript


Question: What did you find when you started looking into the world of online dating?

Dan Ariely: I became interested in online dating because one of the people who were sitting in an office next to me was incredibly miserable, and he was an assistant professor; he just moved to the university where I was at; he was spending long hours; he was not finding anybody to date; he was, couldn’t date students at the university, he was a professor; he didn’t have time to go outside. You know, we were not particularly a social bunch, you know, he was basically stuck.  And online dating was a very promising way to think about this solution for a marketplace that wasn’t working very well, and he tried online dating and he was just failing miserably, continuously.  So that kind of piqued my curiosity about it.  And then I started looking at online dating.

So I start looking by registering myself and looking at other people and then I said, let me ask some of my friends to enroll. So I didn’t ask them to really enroll, I just took their profile sheets and asked people, "Could you fill those out but without your name?"  And I took people that I liked more and I liked less, and I took their profile and I tried to figure out could I tell the difference?  You know, now, imagine you did this.  Imagine you went to 50 people you really like and 50 people you only like so-so, and you asked all of them to fill this profile, then you took this 100 profiles and you tried to sort them out into piles.  Turns out we’re terrible at this!  Right?  So this is kind of an initial observation that something is going wrong in this, in this market.

And then went a step further, did some studies with online daters about how much they enjoyed it and what they were getting from it, until the final stage, we, I figured out, I thought I knew what was going on, which is that online dating sites assume that people are easy to describe on searchable attributes.  They think that we’re like digital cameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and political affiliation and so on. But it turns out people are much more like wine.  That when you taste the wine, you could describe it, but it’s not a very useful description.  But you know if you like it or don’t.  And it’s the complexity and the completeness of the experience that tells you if you like a person or not.  And this breaking into attributes turns out not to be very informative.

So on the last stage of this process, we created a different Web site.  And that different website allowed people to experience other people without all of these attributes. And we show that this is actually much better and would lead to much more, much higher probability of going on a second, on a real date afterward.  So it kind of goes from an observation to a little study, to a bit more details and then finally proposing some kind of solution of something that I think would actually work better.

So the site basically looks at real dates—and think about what real dates are.  They’re not about sitting in the room and interviewing each other about questions; they’re often about experiencing something together in the real world. And I think it’s because if you and I went out, and we went somewhere, I would look at how you react to the outside world.  What music you like, what you don’t like, what kind of pictures you like, what kind of images, how do you react to other people, what do you do in the restaurant?  And through all these kind of non-explicit aspects, I will learn something about you and I would feel that I’m learning something about you.  And the online system we created was very much like that.  It was about you came up and you got a little avatar, a square or a triangle, some color, and you went into a virtual space in which you could explore it.  And you could see lots of stuff, there were pictures and images and there were words and there movies and there were bands, there was all kinds of stuff, and you could go and when you came to another little avatar, you could start chatting.  And you would chat about something, it wasn’t about interviewing when you went to school and what’s your religion; it was about talking about something else and it turns out it gave people much more information about each other, and they were much more likely to want to meet each other for a first date and for a second date.

What's wrong with the experience of online dating?

Dan Ariely: I think that online dating is an incredibly unsatisfying experience.  In fact, when we do surveys to understand what people do, the basic trade off is for each six hours of searching for people and emailing them, you get one cup of coffee.  And it's not as if people enjoy online dating, it's not as if they have fun searching people and writing blurbs for 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.  It's an incredibly unsatisfying experience.  So I think it's a really bad, it's a really bad system.

On top of that, there's another thing, is which, imagine I gave you this search criteria, which I asked you to search by height and weight and income and all of those things: you're going to use it. That's what I give you to search, you're going to use it.  There's a million people out there, you want to limit them to 3,000, that's what we're going to, that's what you're going to use.  And because of that, I think actually people become much more superficial than we think they are.  So here's an example.  It turns out, women really care about men's height.  I’m 5’9”, if I wanted to be as attractive as somebody who’s 5’10”, right, another inch?  I would have to make about $35-40,000 more a year.  That’s a lot of money for one inch.  At the same time, it turns out that men care a lot about women’s BMI’s.  In fact, they want women to be slightly anorexic, at like 18-1/2.  And you look at women’s attractiveness, it goes really up at low BMI and really drops below that.

Now, people online look incredibly superficial.  They look at hair color and they look at height and they look at income, and that’s basically it... and attractiveness, of course.  And you can ask, is it because that’s all people care about or is that because that’s what the system is giving them to search for.  And I think it’s because of combination, right?  Sure, we are superficial, we do care about attractiveness and height and income and these are features for us, but I think they’re exaggerated by the way the system is created.

Imagine you were looking for something else, imagine you were looking for digital cameras, and imagine that I only allow you to search on megapixels and f-stop for the lens, right?  These things would become incredibly important, right?  And if I drop some things from the search, they would become as if they’re not important or much less important.  So I think part of the problem is that the systems don’t give us the right information that we need.  And because of this, I think the experience of online dating is generally unsatisfying.  I mean, think about it: how many millions of people are participating in this activity and marriage rates has not increased, divorce has not decreased. I mean, not really much has happened because of that.  And at the same time, I think it’s incredibly important, right?  The dating market is perhaps the only market that we moved from a centralized market to a decentralized market.  You know, we used to have a yenta, your parents used to tell you what to do, all this is gone, now you have to fend for yourself.  On top of that, we move a lot, right?  You go to one place for undergrad, then you go to grad school, then you move to another city for a job, two years later you move again.  You have no time to create a social network. We work long hours, so it’s really a system where we don’t have time to find people for ourselves. It’s taboo to date people at the work place, the social networks are weaker in the physical world.  We move all the time and we don’t have a yenta or parents to tell us what to do.

So online dating are incredibly important, it could be central and crucial and we need to create them because it’s really a miserable situation for most single people.  At the same time, the ones that we have created, and they all look the same basically, they’re no real differences between them, the ones that we are creating are just not that useful.

Recorded on June 1, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman