LTR - Oct 8 - In the first LTR conference, Professor Sheena Iyengar (Columbia University), author of the Art of Choosing, cites several key studies as she exposes the influence of choice in online dating. As the number of choices goes up, a person's ability to make a choice often suffers. Confidence in one's choice may also decline if a person is aware of limitations to their options. The consequences of cognitive overload are experienced in online dating when users are inundated with too many choices. This can lead to a bad user experience and reduced engagement.
I wrote a book called the Art of Choosing. I've essentially spent about three decades now looking at why we want choice and what things affect how and what we choose. What are some things we can do to choose better? Today, I'm going to talk about a phenomenon that is relevant to the dating market.
We live in a world where there is an explosion of choice happening. That really began in the seventies, but in the last 50 years that explosion has skyrocketed. Just to give you a sense of the scale, in the 1970s, the average grocery store in the United States had about 9,000 products in it. Today, the average grocery store has over 40,000 products.
Today, the average Walmart has about 4 million products and growing with their recent expansion to more and more e-commerce. Amazon has upwards of 300 million products in it. And if you're worried that that Covid-19 has been destroying the number of choices you have; you are wrong. There are 200 different streaming sites now available to you. And if you go on Apple, just look at their podcasts and apps, etc. Yep. 2.2 million and counting. It is not just that we live in a world where we have a lot of choice. We live in a world where we have a lot of information. So, on average, we check our phones every day about 150 times.
We generate about 2.5 quintillion bits of information per day. If you look at the amount of information coming at us, subconsciously and consciously, it is estimated that it's about the equivalent of reading 174 newspapers. So back in the 1990s, long before this explosion had really gone beyond the tipping point, I started to wonder about the consequences of giving people more and more choice. And I didn't know that I was at the tipping point at the time. I ran a study at that time that first looked at this question: how do people respond as the number of choices proliferate? I was a PhD student at Stanford University at the time, and I used to frequent this upscale grocery store called Draeger's.
Now at that time, that store was unique. Today, it's almost passé. This store offered people lots and lots of variety. It was almost like going to an amusement park. They had over 250 types of mustard, vinegars, and mayonnaises. There were over 500 different types of fruits and vegetables, and over 75 different types of extra virgin olive oil. I used to like going to this store. It was fun, but I never bought anything. I would go over to the local Safeway. Now, admittedly, I was a poor PhD student, but still. What happened was, after much discussion with the store manager, we decided to do what has today been dubbed as the famous jam study. Some of you might've heard about it.
And although it doesn't have to do with dating, I want to describe this study, and one other study, to give you a sense of some of the underlying phenomenon that happened when people are confronted by a lot of choice. So, at that time, Draeger's had about 348 different types of jam in their aisles. And what we did was we picked one brand of jam called Wilkin and Sons, the Queen of England's jam. And we set up a little tasting booth right near the entrance of this store. We put out either six different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam. We looked at two things. First, in which case were people more likely to stop and sample some jam, and, second, in which case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam.
And here's what we found. People were more likely to stop when there were 24 on display, about 60%, than when there were six on display, about 40%. And even though those numbers seemingly equal a hundred percent, they're two entirely different populations. Then we looked at buying behavior. So, everybody who stopped at the tasting booth was given a coupon, giving them $1 off if they bought a jar of jam. And what we found was that we saw the opposite effect when it came down to buying behavior of the people who stopped when there were 24 on display. Only 3% of them bought a jar of jam. Whereas of the people who stopped when there were six on display, 30% of them bought a jar of jam. Now, if you do the math, people were actually at least six times more likely to buy a jar of jam when they saw less than when they saw more. That was the first documentation showing that, although people are initially more attracted to having a larger display of option, when it comes down to making a choice, they're more likely to make a choice when they see less than when they see more.
I want to show you one other study that doesn't have to do with dating. I think it further explicates the phenomenon that goes on, particularly when you're talking about more subjective choice-making experiences. So now let's take the case of choosing chocolate, right? We all love chocolate. It's delicious, and it's one of the few things I can serve to undergraduate students who are not of age. It is still a nice sensual experience. You can't get away with serving them beer. So, we brought students into the laboratory where they either encountered six different delicious flavors of Godiva chocolate, or 30 different flavors of Godiva chocolate. And they have a simple task: just choose one and eat it. No questions asked, just choose one and you can eat it. And then when you're done, just tell me how you liked it. As you're walking out the door, I'll either pay you for what you just did for me, or I'll give you a box of free chocolate. And so, what happens?
Because we were able to do six versus 30, we kept rotating which six out of those 30 were presented. And what we observed was that the same chocolate, if selected from six, was perceived as more delicious than if it was selected from 30. Not only that, if they perceived it as more delicious, they were more likely to pick a box of chocolate as their final compensation than money.
Now in later studies, what we also found was that if you're shown six, and you know that that six came out of a selection of 30, you know that I constrained your choice set for you. Well, then the positive effects of giving you six, it's a bit more moderated. It's more muted. I'm less satisfied with the one I've chosen, because I keep wondering, well, what if I'd seen the whole selection? If I ask you to tell me how many of the 30 you want to see, most people do not say they want to see 30. They know they can't handle 30. And, on average, they will pick somewhere between about 15 and 18 out of those 30. However, they're still less satisfied than if they're just choosing from a set of six, when they know that that set of six is the complete set.
Now, these studies I'm describing to you were done almost 20 years ago. Since then, there have been thousands of studies done. Not just by me, but by many other people that have gone on to look at the effects of offering people more and more choice. And I think many industry practices have been changed as a function of these findings. Whether you are looking at consumer choices or investment choices, the market's been affected. And I'll tell you later about the dating study and even more recent, very serious substantial choices, like life and death.
There are essentially four consequences to offering people more and more choice. First, the more choices people have, the less likely they are to make a choice. They choose not to choose. They procrastinate. They go for the default. Second, the more choices they have, the more likely they are to choose sub-optimally. They make errors. You see a lot of performance detriments happen when people get flustered and experienced cognitive overload. Third, the more choices they have, the more likely they are to exhibit inconsistent preferences. I'll talk more about that in a bit. Fourth, the more choices they have, the more likely they are to be less satisfied with whatever they've chosen. It turns out that even when you know that you've objectively chosen better, or the best in that choice set, just the idea that there might be something else that you didn't come across that's better, people start to fixate on that. That increases regret. Those are the four consequences.
I want to take a close look at what has been the evolution of choice when you think about the dating market. Now in 1932, there was a famous study done looking at dating and love. They surveyed a sample of over 5,000 people living in the city of Philadelphia. What you observe is over 40% of the marriages took place amongst people that lived within a 20-block radius with one another. Now think about that, because it's kind of like being able to choose from a chocolate set of six. Sure, they know their choice is constrained, but they also know how well they did on that choosing exercise. Because they know approximately what the market sort of feels like for them and how well they did. Did I get the best in my general geographic area? And there's obviously as a function of them living nearby. There's probably shared interests and shared values that they're naturally the matching on. So, obviously, our geographic ability to navigate has grown exponentially. Let's look at marriage. In the 1950s, people were getting married young, in their twenties. By 2014, the most recent numbers show an average of 27 years old. In urban environments that goes up even higher. In New York City, you're in your thirties.
Now Match.com started back in 1995. That was the first time you had an online dating site. And, in fact, I was at Stanford when it launched in Silicon Valley. You had quite a few people that were amongst the first users. Today, of course, the industry equals at least around about $3 billion, if not more. In the United States, when you look at the proliferation of the kinds of dating apps that exist today, it is incredible. We are way past Match.com, eHarmony, OkCupid, and Tinder. I mean, there are so many different niche dating apps. There is a real proliferation of choice.
Now I want to talk a little bit about the kind of proliferation that we're seeing. We're seeing two types of proliferation happening in the dating market. Forgive me if I don't cover every single one of the different dating apps, because you know that in the United States, we have about 2,500. There's no way I can capture all that, but essentially you have two types of variations that are happening in the dating market. I would put them into two buckets. First, you have a lot of variation happening in choice menu. On the one hand you have things like Match.com, E harmony, League, and Coffee Meets Bagel, where you're giving people a small choice set with lot of information per choice. It is more information per profile. Then, on the other hand, you have Tinder, with lots of choice and only one or two information bits per choice.
Do you remember how I said there was a proliferation happening? Choice and information are obviously coupled. What else do we see? Well, we're seeing the advent of niche and you have a lot of different niches. I mean, it's incredible to consider all the different niches, whether it's women trying to find men with beards, farmers only, cat lovers, gluten-free. There are many different sorts of passions. I don't even think I could possibly cover all the different niches. What are we seeing? What we're seeing is a recognition in the dating marketplace that we should try to curate choice, and that perhaps less is more. Let's try to make the choosing environment for people a bit easier.
How are we going to do that? We're going to go for some form of less is more and make it fun. And I would bucket it into two kinds of choosing experiences, which is one that goes for quantity, like quantity of choice with less information bit per choice. The other is quality, where I'm going to give you less choice with more information per option. So, that gives us a sense of what the marketplace looks like right now.
What are the consequences of this marketplace? What kinds of consequences are happening? On the one hand, you are seeing far more users than you used to have. Amongst the homosexuals, you're seeing about 70% engagement with online dating. When you come to heterosexuals, though, it’s climbing upward for sure. It's somewhere in the thirties now. Maybe 35% of heterosexuals are using online dating. So, there's obviously more potential there for the market. I'm going to get to that in a little bit. What are some of the concerns that customers have when they're dealing with a dating choice today? So, that’s a quick snapshot of where we've come in the dating arena.
Now let me show you what some of the science has to say about how people are making choices in this world where we have a lot of choice. Following the studies that I did on jam and chocolate, one of the early studies that I did on choice was in dating. This is before dating became a real thing. I was one of the scientists that created the speed dating events. I didn't know it was going to become a thing, a product. Any of you who've read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, there is a chapter dedicated to the study I'm about to describe to you. This study ultimately led to about three different academic papers at that time. I'm going to show you the study and the findings. I think you'll find them interesting because this happened before the real explosion in dating apps.
We set up a speed dating event in upper West side here, right by Columbia campus. This was part of this study. What happened was, beforehand, people were asked what they were looking for in a mate. They had to answer lots of different questions like I'm looking for somebody who's funny, who's ambitious, or who's intelligent. They had to indicate on each of these, how important these things were to them. Then they arrived at the event. Because I'm a scientist, I can sort of play with them. I invited either 10 men and 10 women, or 20 men and 20 women. I apologize, this was before we got sophisticated. So, this was purely heterosexual dating. We had 10 and 10 or 20 and 20. Then, during the event itself, they had a four-minute date. You met, you had a four-minute date, then you filled out a survey and rated the person on those very same attributes. How funny, how attracted, how ambitious, how intelligent, how sincere, and how much do I like this person overall? Do I feel like I have shared interests with this person? How likely is this person to say yes to me? Yes or no, do I ever want to see this person again? If two people said yes, they were given each other's email address and you have a match. Like speed dating is done today, males switch chairs. By the end, you get to see 10 dates or 20 dates.
Here's what we learned back then. I'm going to share with you these results. You will see that what we observed back then turned out to be very true today. What you see today is even more intensified than what I'm going to describe to you. It is what we saw about 15 years ago. Here's what you see happen in these days in the speed dating climate: men and women play different games. They play a different dating game. Women play a fixed number game, whereas men play the ratio game. What do I mean by that? Women decide, okay, I want about five or six different possibilities. It doesn't matter to me if I see 10 or if I see 20, I'm going to pick five or six. Remember, these women didn't know that there were other women who were picking from 20. No matter what condition they were in, they picked around five or six. It's like they had a fixed number in their head.
And what about the men? They play a ratio game. They think, Hey, I’ve got 10 women to choose from. I want to pick 50%, so I pick five out of 10 and 10 out of 20. Now it gets a little more nuanced and more sophisticated than that in that men, if you look at their perceptions of how likely is she to say yes to me. If they started to feel that most of these women are going to say no to them, by the time they get towards the last five dates, they just start hitting that yes button over and over and over again, because they've got a ratio in their head that they have to meet. You certainly see that when you look at people's swiping, their swiping rates today, right? Males want to hit that ratio.
Now what are they looking for? What do they do claim they're looking for anyway? It turns out men are about 18% more likely to focus on looks. That pans out when you look at which women they're more likely to say yes to, in terms of their perceptions of their looks. That, of course, goes out the window towards the later part of the dating cycle. Because if they think they're not scoring, they're going to say yes, independent of whether they thought she was attractive or not. Because, obviously, girls get prettier at closing time.
Women on the other hand will say they want men who are more ambitious, more intelligent. What's interesting about that is that women are better than men, at least in a four-minute period, at judging a man's intelligence. It turned out women's ratings of the males' intelligence in that four-minute period was highly correlated with the men's GRE scores. These were mainly all Columbia graduate students who participated, so we knew their GRE scores. Men rate females’ ambition and intelligence lower. They don't want somebody who's more ambitious or intelligent than them. They want somebody equal or below, but they're not as accurate at judging it as our women. What about racial preferences? It turns out women are the gatekeepers on the sort of interracial dating. It turns out that men will say yes to women of a lot more varieties than will women. Women serve as those gatekeepers, and there are certain races that tend to be less preferred like Asian males or African American females.
I want you to look at these two nail polish colors. One of these is named Adorable, and one of these is Ballet Slippers. When I show you the two names, it all makes sense. Sure, the Adorable and Ballet Slippers are two different colors and yet most of us would say, yeah, they're different, but does it really matter? Now if you're a real nail polish connoisseur, I'm sure it matters to you. But let's just say, unless you are a real connoisseur, it's confusing. And here's what I want to argue to you. I want to argue to you that when you look at that proliferation of dating apps that we have created right now in the marketplace, it's like having a dizzying array of pink nail polishes. I understand some of you might be offended by me describing it that way. I say that because there's a lot of tweaking going on. Should I give them three at happy hour or should I give them a hundred people that they could swipe on? You're manipulating choice.
You're manipulating a niche, but you're not actually understanding that your customers are beyond that phase of simply appreciating having more choice. They're more sophisticated than that. That's done. We are in a marketplace of a lot of choice. They want something more than mere superficial curation of choice. What they want is for you to understand the kind of choosing experience that they want, but they don't know how to articulate it. So, what did they articulate to you? They articulate to you, hey, I'm experiencing fatigue. I'm tired of swiping or, Hey, this is the commoditization of humans. I don't like that. Really what they're saying is I don't like it when I'm judged unfairly. I'm getting tired of judging other people. Or they're saying, Hey, I want a meaningful relationship, dammit. You're not giving me that. What are you giving me? You're giving me a bunch of noise, a bunch of trash.
Yet you will argue back to me that every customer now has four or five different apps and they're still playing. And I'm going to say to you, yes, but you're not giving them what they want. If you look at what the marketplace is in dating today, my argument to you is it's like any nascent market. We've gone through that period where we throw darts and we experiment with lots of little variations, just like we did when we were going through the revolution and the evolution of the car industry. Just like we did with the phone industry. It is now time to consolidate because your customers are more sophisticated. And I'm going to argue to you that there are two kinds of customers today. And it's up to you as to the extent to which you want to deliver to those customers what they're looking for.
I'm going to describe these two types to you using the language of choice. That's the only thing I really know anything about. And those two customers are, first, the explorers. These are the people that say, Hey, I don't know what I want. Stop trying to give me things and think I know what I want. I want you to show me and teach me what I want. That's the experience I'm looking for. I'm not looking to get what I want. I'm looking to pay you to give me an experience of a choosing process. Now Tinder was a leader in that. They gave me a process. It's not about finding the one, it's about giving me an experience. I can swipe. It's like a game. It's kind of fun. I'm going to argue to you that those choosers are growing in number. They're looking for a process. They're looking for an experience of self-learning and self-discovery. That self-learning and self-discovery is Tinder. It is not competing with Match.com or OkCupid. It's competing with video games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds on the one side, and they're competing with porn, like PornHub. I think there's even one that's called TinderFuck, or something similar. What are they providing people? Experiences for self-learning. And that experiences for self-learning goes beyond just seeing a photo. It's not about relationships. It's about having that cool experience where I'm feeling like, Hey, I learned something about what I like and what I don't like.
The other type is the preference matcher. The preference matcher says, I know what I want. It's like that person who knows exactly what kind of dish they want in the Chinese restaurant. They know exactly what they want, and they want your help to help find it, to search it for them, and to make their choosing experience much, much, much easier and more enjoyable. They don't want to have to do all the weeding out. Now until now, we did these simple, easy to do algorithms based on using AI, et cetera. Let's just have them do personality tests, and then you can match to people on their personality types or match people on their shared interests. That helps once they're in a relationship. It might reduce some conflict. But that's not what creates a connection. That's not what gets them interested in each other to begin with. What gets them interested in each other to begin with is having an experience that makes them feel that they just formed a meaningful connection. And how do we construct that meaningful connection?
That means that we, as the dating providers, must create those meaningful experiences and opportunities for the individuals. How do you create an authentic connection? I'll leave you with one little tidbit here. I bring a male and female, not even into a room, this is done during Covid-19 online. They see different objects. They experience different objects. They're given a bunch of objects. They're going to see color, they're going to touch some fabric, and they're going to eat something. We had different sensory experiences. The two parties are asked to describe what they're experiencing. In some cases, they're told, Hey, just share your experiences. In other cases, they're told that they’ll share, and then they'll get to see whether they are both seeing the same thing.
It turns out, if I put that pressure on you, you're not going to create a connection. But if I take away that pressure, and I just tell you to share your experiences, regardless of whether you agree or not, those are individuals that subsequently feel that they had a connection with each other. They also feel that what they both experienced was more real and the effects of that lasts at least a month later. So, to conclude, what I'm suggesting here is that I think there's a real opportunity in the dating world where I think the opportunity here is to go to the next level of giving people a more sophisticated choosing experience where you're either giving them that real opportunity to explore, or that real opportunity to engage in significant preference matching.