OPW INTERVIEW - July 28 - Dr. Robert Epstein is an author, editor, and longtime psychology researcher and professor—a distinguished scientist who is passionate about educating the public about advances in mental health and the behavioral sciences. The former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, Dr. Epstein is currently a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind and an occasional lecturer at the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego. He is also the founder and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. He doesn’t believe in matchmaking by numbers. Read this interview to find out what he does believe in. - Mark Brooks
What inspired you to take up the profession of the study of love and motivation?
It happened by accident. A woman approached me about doing some work with me, and I was trying to find a project we could do together. I was single at the time, and she was very attractive, so I made the outrageous suggestion that we should deliberately fall in love through some process and then write a book about it. She loved the idea, but her boyfriend wasn’t as thrilled.
It got me curious about whether people could deliberately learn to love each other. I subsequently posed the question in an editorial when I was editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine back in 2002. The editorial led to a genuine media frenzy that spread around the world. More than 1,000 women from 6 countries proposed to be the guinea pig to deliberately fall in love with me.
That’s how it started. Then I began studying the whole process scientifically. Can people really do this? Do people deliberately fall in love? I started studying people who were in arranged marriages in which love had emerged over time, and I’m still doing that research. I also created a very romantic document called The Love Contract, which allows two people to commit for some period of time to deliberately falling in love with each other.
Then based on my own work and based on scientific studies done by other people, I developed a series of games and exercises that strengthen emotional bonds. In other words, they very rapidly get people to increase their feelings of liking, loving, closeness and attraction.
I’m working now on a book about all this called Making Love: How People Learn to Love and How You Can Too. Over the years, I also ended up doing research on online dating and wrote an investigative article about online dating for Scientific American magazine. I’ve also done consulting for some of the big online dating services, including Match.com and Engaged.com.
I developed an online test as well, which can be found at MyLoveSkills.com. The test is focuses on seven types of relationship skills that research shows are important in long-term love relationships. I’ve been developing what I also just released the beta version of a new test of compatibility, available at AreWeGoodTogether.com.
Would you say any 2 people can fall in love?
No, not any 2 people can fall in love. You can get any 2 people to increase their emotional bond, but for a deep love to emerge, it’s helpful to start out with at least minimal physical attraction. And for a relationship to be successful long-term, you also need to start out with few or no “deal breakers” – that is, threats to long-term happiness. That’s what AreWeGoodTogether.com is all about. However, it turns out that, based of my rough calculations, each of us has about 350,000 people in the world with whom we could build a very deep love over time. Now not all of those people are going to be available of course, so that cuts the number way down. And not all of them are going to be local so that cuts the number down further. But the point is that there are a lot of people out there with whom we could build a very wonderful love relationship over time that is,if one knows how to do it, which is what I’m basically trying to educate people about.
How could an internet dating site systematize the matchmaking process around those facets?
Internet dating sites allow a lot of exchange of text. It’s a waste of time, however, to correspond for very long, because once people meet, all previous impressions are wiped out within seconds. If you think there is potential, you should meet, or at least talk on the phone or by video. Another problem with the online dating sites is that they make deception very easy. 10 to 20% of users admit they provide incorrect information online. But the same people say that 90% of other people are deceptive as well. There are a lot of limitations with online dating. I think that it can be improved, though, and will certainly will improve over time.
There is definitely a limited deck of cards that we have to play with. What site would you say gets closer to doing a good job of this thing called matchmaking?
I’m not a big fan of any of the existing sites. The biggest ones are, what I call “long bars” – bars hundreds of miles long which allow you an endless shopping spree. They have some use, but they make it hard to zoom in on people with whom you can build a great relationship. That brings me to eHarmony and PerfectMatch, where they do some personality testing. The problem here is no one really knows how to do that kind of matching very well. People I’ve talked to who have used eHarmony have said that most of the people they met seem to be completely random people. They didn’t seem to fit them in any special way.
These tests are very crude. The biggest problem with eHarmony especially is, what I call the False Negative Problem. If they really use your test score to match you up with people, then there are a lot of people that they’re not introducing you to – people with whom you could be very happy. Sometimes people who are very similar are attracted to each other and create a relationship, but sometimes opposites really do attract and can also create wonderful relationships. The tests cannot possibly deal with both possibilities. They don't know whether you fit the rule or the exception.
Call me cynical if you like, but tests like eHarmony’s are mainly marketing tools. Some people believe that if you’re testing the heck out of them, you must know something.
I actually ran a strand of single dinners under the domain Undating.com. I used to stand in the group and look like I was really thinking very hard and indeed I was thinking fairly hard about how to match people. I knew a lot of the people in the room and I did try to ham it up I must admit, so that people could see this is a lot of work. I think people took the event a bit more seriously and took the value of the event a bit more seriously because they could see there was some effort going into it.
The same thing with eHarmony. When eHarmony first matched people up, they wouldn’t give matches immediately because that would undermine people’s confidence in the test. I think that’s what they had in mind. They made people wait, even though the calculations can be done is a split second. You could say, I suppose, that eHarmony is simply very strong in marketing and sales – in creating the illusion of effectiveness. But ultimately the site that gets matchmaking right will win.
If you have the power to make one sweeping change in the internet dating industry what would you do?
You have to be humble in the way you match people. Even though I have a background in statistics and have taught courses on statistics at the doctoral level, I don’t think you should be using statistics to match people up. I think you should give people a lot of leeway in who they meet, and then you should be providing opportunities for them to experience each other. Someday computers will allow us to do that really well. There are people working hard right now on allowing us to meet other people realistically in virtual environments.
The social aspect of dating can also be facilitated by computers. Years ago, I fixed up two people I knew because I felt they would be good for each other. They got married and have had a happy life together. In the real world there is a social element to dating. I’ve seen a few websites try to add a social element to the dating process, and I think that’s a great idea.
Those are my main recommendations right now: create ways for people to truly experience each other, be modest about the way you match people up, and add the social element and make dating more like it is in the real world.
Now having said all that, I’ve actually been working for seven years now on what I think is a very modest and practical and humble way of matching people up without using statistics and without running into the false negative problem. That’s the new test at AreWeGoodTogether.com.
Can you tell us a bit about it?
It gives people who already know each other – perhaps a lot, perhaps hardly at all – an easy way to find out right whether they’re likely to run into problems in the future. It identifies the roadblocks that people will face by comparing the minimum needs that each has for a romantic partner.
In some ways it reminds me from my manufacturing engineering background, of something called a failure modes and effects analysis, which is largely used in the aerospace industry and it’s somewhat statistical. You’re looking at different ways a plane can fall apart. If a door knob comes off what is the effect.
Exactly. We’re conducting a “failure mode analysis” for relationships. If you can start out with someone with whom you share few or no deal breakers, your relationship will be virtually effortless. That’s worth thinking about. Ultimately, when are data base is big enough, we’ll also be able to help you find such a person.
How are you looking to work with the internet dating industry? How can sites work with you?
I have done consulting in the industry and I imagine I’ll do some more. I’ve enjoyed helping these businesses do a little bit better. I’d also love to partner with one of the big players who might be interested in using some of the tools I have developed.