How Do I Love Thee?

A growing number of Internet dating sites are relying on academic researchers to develop a new science of attraction. A firsthand report from the front lines of an unprecedented social experiment
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I'd been sitting in Dr. Neil Clark Warren’s office for less than fifteen minutes when he told me he had a guy for me. It wasn’t surprising that the avuncular seventy-one-year-old founder of eHarmony.com, one of the nation’s most popular online dating services, had matchmaking on his mind. The odd thing was that he was eager to hook meupwithout having seen my eHarmony personality profile.

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I’d come to the eHarmony headquarters in Pasadena, California, in early October to learn more about the site’s “scientifically proven” and patented Compatibility Matching System. Apparently, the science wasn’t working for me. The day before, after I’d taken the company’s exhaustive (and exhausting) 436-question personality survey, the computer informed me that of the approximately 9 million eHarmony members, more than 40 percent of whom are men, I had zero matches. Not just in my city, state, region, or country, but in the entire world. So Warren, who looks like Orville Redenbacher and speaks with the folksy cadence of Garrison Keillor, suggested setting me up with one of his company’s advisory board members, whom he described as brilliant, Jewish, and thirty-eight years old. According to Warren, this board member, like me, might have trouble finding a match on eHarmony.

“Let me tell you why you’re such a difficult match,” Warren said, facing me on one of his bright floral sofas. He started running down the backbone of eHarmony’s predictive model of broad-based compatibility, the so-called twenty-nine dimensions (things like curiosity, humor, passion, intellect), and explaining why I and my prospective match were such outliers.

“I could take the nine million people on our site and show you dimension by dimension how we’d lose people for you,” he began. “Just on IQ alone—people with an IQ lower than 120, say. Okay, we’ve eliminated people who are not intellectually adequate. We could do the same for people who aren’t creative enough, or don’t have your brilliant sense of humor. See, when you get on the tails of these dimensions, it’s really hard to match you. You’re too bright. You’re too thoughtful. The biggest thing you’ve got to do when you’re gifted like you are is to be patient.”

After the over-the-top flattery wore off—and I’ll admit, it took an embarrassingly long time—I told Warren that most people I know don’t join online dating sites to be patient. Impatience with real-world dating, in fact, is precisely what drives many singles to the fast-paced digital meat market. From the moment Match.com, the first such site, appeared in 1995, single people suddenly had twenty-four-hour access to thousands of other singles who met their criteria in terms of race, religion, height, weight, even eye color and drinking habits.

Nearly overnight, it seemed, dozens of similar sites emerged, and online dating became almost de rigueur for busy singles looking for love. According to a recent Pew survey, 31 percent of all American adults (63 million people) know someone who has used a dating Web site, while 26 percent (53 million people) know someone who has gone out with a person he or she met through a dating Web site. But was checking off boxes in columns of desired traits, like an à la carte Chinese take-out menu, the best way to find a soul mate?

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Enter eHarmony and the new generation of dating sites, among them PerfectMatch.com and Chemistry.com. All have staked their success on the idea that long-term romantic compatibility can be predicted according to scientific principles—and that they can discover those principles and use them to help their members find lasting love. To that end they’ve hired high-powered academics, devised special algorithms for relationship-matching, developed sophisticated personality questionnaires, and put into place mechanisms for the long-term tracking of data. Collectively, their efforts mark the early days of a social experiment of unprecedented proportions, involving millions of couples and possibly extending over the course of generations. The question at the heart of this grand trial is simple: In the subjective realm of love, can cold, hard science help?

Although eHarmony was the first dating site to offer science-based matching, Neil Clark Warren seems like an unlikely pioneer in the field. Even though he earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Chicago, in 1967, he never had much of a passion for academic research—or an interest in couples. “I was scared to death of adults,” he told me. “So I did child therapy for a while.” With a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, he went on to Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology, in southern California, where he taught and practiced humanistic psychology (what he calls “client-centered stuff”) in the vein of his University of Chicago mentor, Carl Rogers. “I hated doing research,” he admitted, before adding with a smile, “In fact, I was called ‘Dr. Warm.’ ”

Fittingly, it was Warren’s family, not academia, that piqued his interest in romantic compatibility. “When my daughters came along, that was a big pivot in my life in thinking about how do two people get together,” he told me. “I started reading in the literature and realizing what a big chance they had of not having a satisfying marriage. I started trying to look into it.”

Soon he began a private practice of couples therapy—with a twist. “People have always thought, wrongly, that psychotherapy is a place to go deal with problems,” he said. “So when a couple would come in, I’d say, ‘Tell me how you fell in love. Tell me the funniest thing that’s happened in your marriage.’ If you want to make a relationship work, don’t talk about what you find missing in it! Talk about what you really like about it.”

Warren is a big proponent of what he likes to call “folksy wisdom.” One look at the shelves in his office confirms this. “I’ve been reading this little book about the Muppets—you know, Jim Henson,” he said. “And I’ve been reading another book about Mister Rogers. I mean, Mister Rogers was brilliant beyond belief! He got a hold of concepts so thoroughly that he could transmit them to six-year-old kids! Do you know how much you have to get a hold of a concept to transmit it simply? His idea of simple-but-profound has had a profound influence on me.”

The basis of eHarmony’s matching system also sounds simple but profound. In successful relationships, Warren says, “similarities are like money in the bank. Differences are like debts you owe. It’s all right to have a few differences, as long as you have plenty of equity in your account.”

He leaned in and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mister Rogers and Jim Henson,” Warren continued, “they got a hold of the deep things of life and were able to put them out there. So that’s what we want to do with our products. We want to put them out there in a way that you’d say, ‘This is common sense. This seems right, this seems like it would work.’ Our idea of broad-based compatibility, I put it out there in front of you. Does that seem right?”

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Lori Gottlieb is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

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