Gordon Smith

Study: Your Online Dating Failures Might Not Be Your Own, Blame Algorithms

A recent study has delved into the algorithms used by dating websites discovering most are fundamentally flawed. That being said, the main reason was us, but we’ll whitewash over that.

 

Online dating sucks.

I say this having successfully met my partner through online dating, having sat through what seemed like an eternity of bad one-liners and filtered-to-hell-and-back photos. There were times when it seemed hopeless. No matter how rabidly I swiped, no one would swipe back.

The few matches I did snag? Well, with present company excluded, they weren’t exactly the stuff of dreams.

Eventually, you start to wonder, Am I doing something wrong?

Well, the answer is yes. But also, no.

Sure, there is the whole chemical aspect to dating or the impossibly high standards I held. But it turns out there’s as much mechanically wrong with online dating as there is personally.

Dating websites use algorithms to create successful matches. eHarmony, OkCupid, Match.com. All of your classic, heterosexual dating services do it. (Tinder is the exception to the rule, using its algorithmic rhythms to identify who users find desirable.)

But the thing about human emotions is that they’re hard to predict, as a group of psychologists found when they conducted their own speed-dating events. Their study, to be published in the Psychological Science journal, saw 350 university-aged participants attend.

Before they got down to business, participants completed questionnaires that measured their personality traits, values, dating strategies, well-being, and what their ideal mate would want in a partner. These responses were then fed into an algorithm to predict who would be a match.

During the speed-dating, participants went on approximately 12 dates, each lasting an impressive four minutes.

 

The thing about human emotions is that they’re hard to predict, as a group of psychologists discovered when they conducted their own speed-dating events.

 

In between dates, they completed a two-minute questionnaire about their feelings toward the person they’d just met, much like you would get after hauling your drunken carcass out of an Uber.

These questionnaires were then compared to the algorithm’s predictions. Those predictions were then probably roundly mocked by all involved, having failed entirely to make a match.

While it was relatively easy to predict who was friendly and who was picky, it was almost impossible to say who those friendly and/or picky people would match well with.

Samantha Joel, who lectures psychology at the University of Utah, was not surprised. “People agree to go on dates with people who have everything they say they don’t want. What you say isn’t what you want. Attraction doesn’t play nice with preferences.”

Joel’s previous research has shown that three in four people will agree to go on a date with someone who has an undesirable trait they would normally consider a deal breaker. You might say that you’d never date someone conservative or a fundamentalist Christian. But if that potential match has other qualities, you will probably agree to give them a shot.

 

Research has shown that three in four people will agree to go on a date with someone who has an undesirable trait they would normally consider a deal breaker.

 

So, considering that we, real-life humans, have difficulty in predicting what we’ll like in our one and only, it’s fair enough our machine friends struggle, too. Despite this computational complication, you shouldn’t be too quick to swear off online matchmaking.

“Online dating is still a useful too,” explains Joel. “It identifies people in your pool. That’s a service.”

But, as Joel stresses in italicized text, it doesn’t say that those people in your pool are a good fit for you. And, hey, that makes sense. Although I might decry the (nearly) dozen dates I went on for their lack of romantic fortune, those dates meant I was opening myself up to different people, with different traits. People I may not have previously seen as desirable suddenly seemed much more compatible. I was swimming in an ever-expanding pool, in retrospect.

Like every romantic comedy taught us, circling around a somewhat comedic, but awkward person, the moral is clear: to find the right partner means being the right partner. Self-improvement.

Alternatively, you can continue to curse the dating services that are holding you hostage. They do, after all, at least have some blame here.

 

Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the bigwigs in government to account.

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