Based on the numbers alone, the advantages of online dating services seem obvious. The sites grant access to larger pools of potential dates than you could ever find on your own, and the more people you connect with, the greater the chance is that one of those people could be your soul mate. Some sites even promise “scientific formulas” to create perfect matches, making it sound as if the odds of finding true love are all but guaranteed. Unfortunately, though, just like that certain someone who fails to call for a follow-up date, there are indications these sites don’t come through on their promises.
A team of researchers led by Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, decided to test the claims of dating sites by comparing the likelihood that users would not only find, but also stick with their “online soul mates” for the long haul. Their study, published in Psychological Science and summarized in a New York Times op-ed, concludes that even though as many as 25 million people per month seek matches through online dating services, these individuals are no more likely to find their soul mates than people who hook up with partners through conventional methods—singles bars, blind dates, friends of friends.
What’s worse, online dating services make claims that are largely unfounded. Sites may say they use scientific methods and proven algorithms as the basis for matching, but they don’t release the data due to proprietary reasons, or the data they produce don’t fit the criteria for scientific acceptability. Dating sites don’t use controlled studies, for example, which would be nearly impossible. These issues haven’t stopped promoters from making outlandish, unproven claims, such as the bizarre one from GenePartner, a site that says its matchmaking abilities are superior because it incorporates users’ DNA: “Now, hard science is making it easier to find true love. A new matchmaking system uses DNA to help find your dream date, and it’s redefining what it means to be compatible.”
Flawed though these sites are, many singles still view them as the best option. And while you can’t put a price on love, you can at least try to spend your money on dating sites in the smartest way possible. With prices ranging from totally free to $60 per month, how can you get the most for your money with online dating services? Some strategies:
Limit your time and your choices. You might assume that the more choices you have, the greater your chances are of finding that one ideal mate. This actually goes counter to psychological research on decision-making. Whether it’s picking a T-shirt from a range of 20 different colors, or finding an online match among thousands, “choice overload” has been proven to lead people to make worse choices. In studies, people tend to make smarter, more sensible picks when selecting from a smaller batch (6 to 10) compared to dozens or options. With a dating site, what’s likely to happen is that you’ll closely scrutinize the first few profiles that pop up in your search, but after that, your brain gets tired. You start skimming, and the search becomes somewhat random. As a result, you may ignore or skip past perfectly good choices that pop up later. To avoid this problem, limit your searches in terms of profiles and time. Each person works differently, but it’s probably unwise to scan through more than two dozen profiles in a single sitting. If you can’t recall a single thing about a profile seconds after checking it out, it’s time to take a break.
Match up with the right site. One easy way to narrow your options is to choose your site carefully. Large dating sites with upwards of 2.5 million users (eHarmony, PlentyofFish, Match, True) promise more potential dates, but because they are so generic you may have less of a chance of finding someone who shares qualities that you value. It’s OK—good, even—to have fewer choices, so long as they’re better ones. Niche dating sites might be just the answer. If you’re highly educated and seeking a highly educated partner, Right Stuff Dating (“The Ivy League of Dating”) may be right for you. People who want to date British guys may, naturally, want to check out DateBritishGuys.com. A special breed of single might instead be drawn to FarmersOnly.com (“Because city folks just don’t get it”). For help finding and getting a feel for various dating sites, check out resources from Real Simple, OnlineDatingSites.net, ConsumerSearch, and Consumer Rankings.
Keep an open mind. Don’t assume right away that someone who misses out on a supposedly key quality (like height) should automatically be eliminated as a prospect. Start with a broader list of criteria, and give yourself enough time to study all of the qualities in a profile to get an overall sense of who the person is. It’d be a shame if someone was off your radar due to height when you and this person have the exact same taste in movies or music.
Don’t buy into the “scientific method” hype. The formulas that sites use don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. You’re better off using a site that allows you to interact with potential partners sooner than later, particularly if you are able to meet them in person. People often form erroneous impressions from online communications. Once formed, these impressions can lead to shattered expectations when you actually come face to face. So, scary as it may seem, try to meet your online choices in person asap. The truth is that you can’t substitute a scientific formula or digital communications for the vibes you get when you actually meet someone in the flesh.
The bottom line? If you want Cupid’s arrow to strike you from the online dating cloud, don’t be sucked in by false scientific claims or millions of dating choices. Select the sites that make the most sense for you, don’t overwhelm yourself with too many options, and don’t waste your effort and money on extensive profiling. Know what you want before you log on, but allow yourself to be surprised when the seemingly not-so-perfect choice turns out to the one who rocks your world.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her most recent book is The Search for Fulfillment, and she writes the Fulfillment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.