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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Whether or not it seems right on an intuitive level is almost beside the point. After all, eHarmony’s selling point, its very brand identity, is its scientific compatibility system. That’s where Galen Buckwalter comes in.

A vice president of research and development for the company, Buckwalter is in charge of recruiting what he hopes will be twenty to twenty-five top relationship researchers away from academia—just as he was lured away by Warren nine years ago. A former psychology graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary (his dissertation was titled “Neuropsychological Factors Affecting Survival in Malignant Glioma Patients Treated with Autologous Stimulated Lymphocytes”), Buckwalter had become an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, where he was studying the effects of hormones on cognition, when he got the call from Warren.

“Neil knew I lived and breathed research, and he had this idea to try to develop some empirically based model to match people,” Buckwalter said when I visited him at his office at eHarmony. He wore a black T-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, and had a hairstyle reminiscent of Einstein’s. “He wasn’t necessarily thinking, over the Internet—maybe a storefront operation like Great Expectations.” Relationships weren’t Buckwalter’s area, but he welcomed the challenge. “A problem is a problem, and relationships are a good problem,” he said. “In the research context, it’s certainly an endlessly fascinating question.”

With the help of a graduate student, Buckwalter reviewed the psychological literature to identify the areas that might be relevant in predicting success in long-term relationships. “Once we identified all those areas, then we put together a questionnaire—just a massively long questionnaire,” he said. “It was probably close to a thousand questions. Because if you don’t ask it, you’re never gonna know. So we had tons of questions on ability, even more on interest. Just every type of personality aspect that was ever measured, we were measuring it all.”

Because it wasn’t practical to execute a thirty-year longitudinal study, he and Warren decided to measure existing relationships, surveying people who were already married. The idea was to look for patterns that produce satisfaction in marriages, then try to reproduce them in the matching of singles.

Buckwalter’s studies soon yielded data that confirmed one of Warren’s longtime observations: namely, that the members of a happy couple are far more similar to each other than are the members of an unhappy couple. Compatibility, in other words, rests on shared traits. “I can’t tell you how delighted I was,” Warren said, “when the factor-analytic studies started bringing back the same stuff I’d seen for years.”

But could this be true across the board? I told Warren that my most successful relationships have been with men who are far less obsessive than I am. Warren assured me that’s not a similarity their system matches for. “You don’t want two obsessives,” he explained. “They’ll drive each other crazy. You don’t find two control freaks in a great marriage. So we try to tweak the model for that. Fifty percent of the ball game is finding two people who are stable.”

For Warren, a big question remained: What should be done with these findings? Originally, he had partnered with his son-in-law, Greg Forgatch, a former real-estate developer, to launch the business. Their first thought was to produce educational videotapes on relationship compatibility. After all, Warren had recently written his book, Finding the Love of Your Life.

“We tried so hard to make videotapes and audiotapes,” Warren said. “I went into the studio and made lists. We came up with a hundred things singles need. But singles don’t want education; they want flesh! They want a person. So that’s when, in 1997, we said, ‘We’ve gotta help people find somebody who would be good for them. Some body.’ ”

To connect singles and create a data pool for more research, the Internet seemed the best option. Based on a study of 5,000 married couples, Warren put together the compatibility model that became the basis for eHarmony. “We got encouraged by everybody, ‘Get out there, get out there! The first person to market is going to be the most successful, ” Warren recalled. But he insisted on getting the matching system right before launching the site—and that didn’t happen until August of 2000, during the dot-com bust. By 2001 he was contemplating declaring bankruptcy.

“And then,” Warren recalled, “we found an error in our matching formula, so a whole segment of our people were not getting matched. It was an error with all the Christian people on the site.”

This is a sensitive topic for Warren, who bristles at the widely held opinion that eHarmony is a Christian dating site. The company’s chief operating officer, he offered by way of rebuttal, is Jewish, and Buckwalter, who became a quadriplegic at age sixteen after jumping into a river and breaking his neck, is agnostic. And while Warren describes himself as “a passionate Christian” and proudly declares, “I love Jesus,” he worried about narrowing the site with too many questions about spiritual beliefs. Which is where the error came in.

“We had seven questions on religion,” he explained, “and we eliminated four of them. But we forgot to enter that into the matching formula! These were seven-point questions. You needed twenty-eight points to get matched with a Christian person, but there was no way you could get them! We only had three questions! So every Christian person who had come to us had zero matches.”

Fortunately, a wave of positive publicity, featuring married couples who’d met through eHarmony and the naturally charismatic Warren, turned things around. Still, Warren said of the innocent mistake, “you kind of wonder how many relationships fall apart for reasons like this—ow many businesses?”

Today, eHarmony’s business isn’t just about using science to match singles online. Calling itself a “relationship-enhancement service,” the company has recently created a venture-capital-funded think tank for relationship and marital research, headed up by Dr. Gian Gonzaga, a scientist from the well-known marriage-and-family lab at the University of California at Los Angeles. The effort, as Gonzaga put it to me recently, is “sort of like a Bell Labs or Microsoft for love.”

An energetic, attractive thirty-five-year-old, Gonzaga thought twice about leaving the prestige of academia. “It seemed cheesy at first,” he said. “I mean, this was a dating service.” But after interviewing with Warren, he realized that conducting his research under the auspices of eHarmony would offer certain advantages. He’d be unfettered by teaching and grant-writing, and there would be no sitting on committees or worrying about tenure. More important, since his research would now be funded by business, he’d have the luxury of doing studies with large groups of ready subjects over many years—but without the constraints of having to produce a specific product.

“We’re using science in an area most people think of as inherently unscientific,” Gonzaga said. So far, the data are promising: a recent Harris Interactive poll found that between September of 2004 and September of 2005, eHarmony facilitated the marriages of more than 33,000 members—an average of forty-six marriages a day. And a 2004 in-house study of nearly 300 married couples showed that people who met through eHarmony report more marital satisfaction than those who met by other means. The company is now replicating that study in a larger sample.

“We have massive amounts of data!” Warren said. “Twelve thousand new people a day taking a 436-item questionnaire! Ultimately, our dream is to have the biggest group of relationship psychologists in the country. It’s so easy to get people excited about coming here. We’ve got more data than they could collect in a thousand years.”

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

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