How Online Dating Is Like Buying CerealS

Whether or not online dating is stigmatized, it's still difficult. One reason: too many choices!

37% of single Internet users have tried online dating sites, but a new study has uncovered a hazard: The more matches you get, the worse you are at picking the best ones. Study authors Pai-Lu Wu and Wen-Bin Chiou say "more search options lead to less selective processing by reducing users' cognitive resources, distracting them with irrelevant information, and reducing their ability to screen out inferior options." Online daters can suffer "cognitive overload," losing their ability to judge because there's so much information. In another study, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School found that online daters spent 12 hours surfing dating sites and e-mailing or every two hours of actual physical dating. He says users of dating sites "evaluate each person only superficially, never investing the time and energy to explore whether a match might work."

This doesn't actually sound all that different from offline dating, but researchers suggest that dating sites could improve the experience by reminding people how many profiles they'd already viewed, and by asking users more interview questions that "allow individuals to highlight unique aspects of their personality." But would more information really make things better? In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz discusses how having too many choices — like, say, the "275 varieties of cereal" an average supermarket — makes us less satisfied with our decisions and with the choosing process in general. Is this true of dating? Does online dating, like a cereal aisle, present us with too many not-so-good options, making it harder to select a good one?

True/Slant's Ryan Sager references The Paradox of Choice, and adds his own prescription for better online dating:

Meanwhile, what I think would be more useful is some kind of humor typology. Have people rate jokes, clips from TV comedies, etc. I bet you could break people down into four or five general humor categories (America's Funniest Home Videos vs. Flight of the Conchords, etc.)

A shared sense of humor is certainly valuable in a relationship, but is this really something that can be evaluated on the Web? Something that's funny in person is often lame in writing, and two people who like the same TV shows won't necessarily find each other amusing. Perhaps the dating sites will have advanced love-bots that suss out what we really want — not what we think we want — and deliver us a few carefully chosen matches. Until then, the solution is obviously arranged marriage. And Pop-Tarts.

Data Overload On Dating Sites [Technology Review]
50 (Or More) First Dates [True/Slant]

Earlier: Has Online Dating Really Lost Its Stigma?