NPR Radio - On Point
Mark Brooks, CEO of Courtland Brooks, a consulting group that serves Internet dating companies.
Eli Finkel, professor of social psychology at Northwestern University.
Amanda Hess, writer for Slate.
Online dating has become a huge avenue for seeking relationships. Is online dating making it too easy to move on? Dan Slater raised this question in his recent article in The Atlantic – A Million First Dates
Tom: Dan Slater’s conclusion is there are so many fish in the digital sea that people aren’t going to necessarily make commitments anymore and settle down. What did you think of it?
Mark: People like choice and the position that I come from is knowing the people who are running the Internet dating companies. I think they are a big powerful point of observation. So the observation that I’ve heard them make is that their businesses are based on people coming back and as a mass volume business for them.
So what they’ve observed is that people are paralyzed by choice.
Tom: So Dan Slater quotes one of his online executives saying, “I often wonder whether matching you up with great people is getting so efficient and the process is getting so enjoyable that marriage will become obsolete.” After all, as you say, their business depends on volume. It would be good for their business if people never settled down and just kept fishing in that sea.
Mark: The reality is that the science of Internet matchmaking is still very virgin. I think only in the last year or two have dating sites been able to open up to academics like Professor Dan Ariely and give them the kind of information and data that they need to be able to make really good observations and how to provide better matchmaking.
Tom: Are we just beginning to learn?
Mark: Well the likes of E-Harmony and Chemistry are going to tell you that yes, they can make good matches. I think ultimately they make better matches than people would do on their own, but the promise of Internet matchmaking is that you’re going to meet someone who is more compatible or perfectly compatible even, or in the case of Perfect Match, the perfect match for you.
But the reality is it’s important to go out and meet as many people as possible, but also get to know yourself through that process and then make a good chemistry match.
Tom: Mark, what do we know about how much of mate seeking or dating has gone online, on or offline? Or is online taking over?
Mark: Each month 122 Million people worldwide are using Internet dating according to ComScore, and in the US around 20 to 30 million people are online dating every month.
Tom: Does that mean that what Amanda calls the sexual economy, do you think it’s being molded by the dynamics of online dating?
Mark: I think the pendulum has swung over and that people are empowered by the choice, and there are a couple of affects with that. On one hand, it’s very empowering and very attractive to jump online and go find another one, but on the other hand, it is having an effect on commitment.
In fact, there was an interesting study done, and it’s in Professor Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, and they found that people ate 43% more M & M’s when they had a choice of 10 colors than when they had a choice of 7 colors.
Tom: Let’s go to our listeners and hear their experience. So we have Katherine from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Katherine welcome and you’re on the air.
Katherine: I had a couple of experiences with online dating, and I did meet my husband through one of the dating services I joined. I do feel it is a too,l but as with many other tools you have to figure out what kind and how to use it. Is it going to cut you if you hold it a certain way? So you do have to educate yourself in the use of the online dating services.
Tom: Did you run into a lot of men who were sort of looking to taste and hop, taste and hop and just keep going?
Katherine: Well yes. I did go out on a number of dates before I met my husband with other people, but I had learned enough. I knew I was at a point where I really wanted to be with someone who was serious.
Tom: Do you think it could undercut relationship, commitment or…
Katherine: I think in some cases it could, but again, I feel that people who are using the services have to learn how to look for the warning signs of the people they’re dating.
Tom: Eli do you see the possibility of the erosion of commitment in an age of an abundance of options or at least that appearance online?
Eli: I think we need to distinguish between 2 questions. If the question is: Will the existence of a lot of romantic alternatives increase the likelihood of breakup and divorce? - I’m totally with Dan Slater here. I think that’s correct, but I’m not sure it’s the crucial question, right? We can ask a different question, which is: “If you are in a good strong relationship, what is the likelihood that the emergence of all these alternatives will undermine your relationship? I think it is quite likely that the emergence of online dating and this sort of bevy of alternatives will actually undermine a relationship that people are actually very happy in, in the first place.
Tom: Is it possible that it would change people’s sense of the target or the goal here?
Eli: I don’t think that’s common. It’s not there you are, and you’re in an 8 year marriage, and you’re happy with your husband, and all of a sudden some guy enters the bedroom and now you have to choose.
It’s not like you’re powerless, and now you have to log into Match.com. So no, I disagree with the premise that good relationships are frequently under new duress or new pressure because of the existence of all these alternatives. Because the vast majority of people who are in good committed relationships are happy to be there. The fact that there is some hypothetical massive pool of partners that they could find if they started browsing for those partners is irrelevant because they’re not going to start the browsing process.
Tom: Mark Brooks, are you or others making the case that there is something insipient in human nature that was just waiting to bust out when Internet dating came along that would put commitment, dating, monogamy, marriage itself at risk because of this pool of available options to consider?
Mark: I think it’s a matter of evolutionary psychology. We’re gluttons for sex and relationships. So it’s fairly inevitable that people are going to want to enjoy this choice, and if you consider the business drivers, the business wants this to happen as well.
This is a very unusual industry because we’re victims of our own success. If we do a good job, we lose the customers.
Tom: Well that depends. If your job is, like tobacco companies, to get people hooked on a new product, i.e., online dating maybe that’s what you end up with, and people are hooked on that dynamic.
Mark: Right and you see a lot of the dating sites really appear like shopping, and a lot of the people who are designing these products actually have that kind of background about e-commerce. So there are a few companies that have taken a more sociological perspective, and I think this is to be welcomed and very good for society on the whole.
Tom: Traditionally you kind of know the person you ask out on a date. You’ve got some sense of them, how they walk and talk and smile. Online you have a profile but not that visceral sense. What about the quality of the interaction itself, Amanda?
Amanda: I think as humans we can adapt to a lot of new ways of finding people. But I do agree, at least in my own experience, and one of the reasons I didn’t find online dating very efficient was before I actually met someone in person, it was very difficult for me to get a sense of who they were and how I might interact with them.
Tom: So here we are and people are saying all right I’m not going to get that sort of chemistry up that I would get with a co-worker or someone I met in person, and nd yet they’re willing to do this. Eli Finkel, what is the driver here? Is it a numbers thing? Is it liberating to have this number of options before us?
Eli: Dating is fun. The driver is, it’s nice to meet people. It’s always been a challenge to figure out how to meet people, and online dating just smoothes the wheels. I’m a big believer that people should use online dating and, in fact, Jacob from the Dan Slater article I think is using online dating pretty effectively.
I do agree with Amanda that he doesn’t seem ready yet to be optimal relationship material, but I don’t think online dating caused that. Online dating allowed him to live out his fantasy dating world as he wants to live it. I have no problem with the fact that he’s doing that. But I think somebody more ready to start a more serious relationship could use online dating and even date 3, 4, or 5 people in a given month and use that as a springboard to find someone particularly special.
Tom: Mark Brooks, you have this industry survey and it’s called, "How Has Internet Dating Changed Society?" Dan Slater quotes it and some of the survey responses here that I’ll share.
It says (1) Internet dating has made people more disposable; (2) Internet dating may be partly responsible for the rise in divorce rates, and I don’t know if that’s true because this is an industry survey. Another point - low quality, unhappy, unsatisfying marriages are being destroyed as people drift to Internet dating sites. Above all, Internet dating has helped people of all ages realize there is no need to settle for a mediocre relationship.
That sounds like a tool that’s changing the context Mark Brooks.
Mark: I think there is an underlying problem. There is a conclusion that I made from reading the article, and I think the conclusion is that people need help. This is an observation that the industry has made as well. Getting someone who is compatible and keeping them are 2 different things. So yes you broke up and maybe you’ll break up again, but what have you learned from that? How can this industry help him do better next time?
I think there is an opportunity there, and we can see that reflected in the number of couple’s apps that are springing up. They help couples keep it together and ask the right questions. But it is disjointed because these apps don’t know the people they’re serving. I wish internet dating companies would grab that ball and run with it because they are very well qualified to help couples keep it together.
Tom: I mean the implication here Amanda is when a relationship gets a little rocky and, of course, all relationships do at one time or another, and in this age one partner is going to be off with the keyboard sort of clicking around to say oh this is too hard and I’m looking for options right here right now and maybe that will lure me out when things get tough.
Amanda: I don’t think infidelity is new to the digital age. On OK Cupid every member is assigned a color of a dot based on how many messages they respond to and how likely it is that they will return your message.
What I found was a lot of women on that site had a yellow or red dot meaning it was very rare for them to respond to your message. Whereas a lot of men would have green dots. What that communicated to me just by the quality of messages that I was receiving, was that there was a very vocal group of men who were indiscriminately messaging women and sometimes in negative or harassing ways.
Mark: There is a very clear pattern. A 20 something woman is going to be very popular and fairly inundated fairly quickly when she joins a new service because it’s not just the 20 something male that will be looking for her but the 30 and the 40 and the 50 something male too. So the demographic, the communication draws more even once people get into their early 40’s. Then in the 50’s and 60’s, the 60 year old man is very similar to a 20 year old hottie.
Tom: Because the ratios change and that person is in demand? I mean Eli Finkel what about the net/net here? You write about this easing people’s access to companionship and that is a good thing and people want it. Here is the assertion that it maybe also lubricates breakup. How do you see the net/net?
Eli: You’re talking about net/net in terms of what is the value of online dating in general?
Tom: I guess, and if we hold longer term commitments as a social good, and I guess you can challenge that.
Eli: I’m happy to grant it for this conversation. So let me say 2 things. Online dating is marvelous because it decreases the likelihood that you will be a single person wishing you weren’t single and having no options. I think one thing that Dan Slater’s article really does is illustrate you now have a whole bunch of available options out there, and relative to 20 years ago it is a chiasmic leap forward in terms of giving people access to face to face meetings with potential partners.
With regard to long-term monogamy and stability relationships, I’ll return to something I started saying earlier about whether the relationships were good from the beginning or not. Think of the analogy of buying a house, and let’s say you and your significant other are in the market to buy a house and for the better part of a year you’re browsing the listings on Craigslist and looking at prices, etc. But then one day you buy a house and in the next few years you can’t be bothered to see what other houses are out there on the market.
Now look, I’m not saying that buying a house is the same thing as settling down for a marriage or something, but the analogy works. If you’re in this deliberative weighing the options mindset, which Jacob clearly still is, then yes the availability of huge numbers of alternatives is likely to reduce your commitment to any given option.
If Jacob says, and he might, there is no reason to think Jacob might not settle down with that pharmacist or someone else he’s seeing, he might say she’s great and I’m kind of sick of doing all this dating. It’s expensive and time consuming and tiring, and I want to settle down with her. And I have every reason to believe that once he gets out of that deliberative mindset and says, “This is the one and I’m going to make this work,” he should be able to do that.
And the fact that there is Match.com out there will become irrelevant.
Tom: Amanda what do you say to that?
Amanda: I think one of the most interesting things about online dating is not that it shows you all these great options that you have, but it does show you options. I think it allows every person to do what we’re doing now as journalists or researchers, which is to have a better handle on their place in the dating world.
It really provides a loose sort of narrative or structure to understanding dating, which is really confusing. And I think that is helpful to people sometimes, and sometimes comforting even, if it’s not just throwing a bunch of really hot women at them every time they log on.
Eli: I think I’m more in the nothing new under the sun camp. That is, online dating hasn’t changed the human psyche, right? Evolution built it over a long period of time and online dating hasn’t destroyed it in 17 years.