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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While other sites gather data based on often unreliable self-reports (“How romantic do you consider yourself to be?”), many of the Chemistry.com questions are designed to translate visual interpretation into personality assessment, thus eliminating some of the unreliability. In one, the user is presented with a book’s jacket art. We see a woman in a sexy spaghetti-strapped dress gazing at a man several feet away in the background, where he leans on a stone railing. The sky is blue, and they’re overlooking an open vista. “What is the best title for this book?” the questionnaire asks, and the choices are as follows:

A Spy in Rimini
Anatomy of Friendship: A Smart Guide for Smart People
A Scoundrel’s Story
Things Left Unsaid

According to Fisher, each response is correlated with one of the four personality types: Choice A corresponds to Explorer, B to Builder, C to Director, and D to Negotiator.

Even sense of humor can be broken down by type, with questions like “Do you sometimes make faces at yourself in the mirror?” (people with a sense of humor do) and “At the zoo, which do you generally prefer to watch?” (the reply “monkeys and apes” indicates more of a funny bone than “lions and tigers”). According to Fisher, a Director likes people to laugh at his or her jokes; a Negotiator likes to be around someone funny so he or she can laugh at that person’s jokes; an Explorer is spontaneous and laughs at just about anything; and a Builder, she suspects, generally isn’t as funny as the others.

But how to match people up according to Fisher’s four personality types, and under what circumstances, isn’t so straightforward. Another question, for instance, presents four smiling faces and asks:

Take a look at the faces below. Are their smiles sincere?
faces

Fisher says that people with high levels of estrogen—usually women—have better social skills, and are better at reading other people. So users who choose the correct “real” smiles (pictures two and three) will be the Negotiators. This, Fisher says, is an area where “complementarity” might be important. The problem with sites like eHarmony, she believes, is that they place too much emphasis on similarity, whereas, in her view, falling in love depends on two elements: similarity and complementarity. “We also want someone who masks our flaws,” she explained. “For example, people with poor social skills sometimes gravitate toward people with good social skills. I’m an Explorer, so I don’t really need a partner who is socially skilled. That’s not essential to me. But it may be essential to a Director, who’s generally less socially skilled.”

Chemistry.com’s compatibility questionnaire also examines secondary personality traits. To illustrate, Fisher cited her own relationship. “I’m currently going out with a man,” she said, “and of course I made him take the test instantly. We’re both Explorers and older. I’m not sure two Explorers want to raise a baby together, because nobody will be home. But in addition, I’m a Negotiator and he’s a Director type. Our dominant personality is similar, but underneath, we’re complementary.”

Determining which works best—similarity or complementarity—may change with the circumstances. A young woman who’s an Explorer, Fisher said, might be attracted to a Builder, someone who’s more of a homebody, loyal, dependable, and protective. But the pair will be more compatible if their secondary personalities match—maybe they’re both Negotiators underneath.

“Nobody is directly locked into any one of these temperament types,” Fisher said. “That’s why we provide each person with both a major and a minor personality profile. Do Explorers go well together? Do likes attract likes? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”

If this sounds a bit, well, unscientific, Fisher is the first to admit it. “I have theories about what personality type a person would be most ideally suited with,” she told me, “but I also trust people to tell me what they are looking for. All throughout the questionnaire are checks and balances to what are just Helen Fisher’s theories.”

This is why she decided to include an item on the Chemistry.com questionnaire that asks about the traits of a person’s partner in his or her most successful former relationship: Was that person an Explorer, a Builder, a Director, a Negotiator? “Anybody can match somebody for values. But I’m hoping to create a system so that five years later they still fascinate each other.”

At the same time, Fisher wants couples to be fascinated by each other early on. In other words, why waste time e‑mailing back and forth to get to know a potential match over the course of several weeks, as eHarmony encourages its users to do, if there won’t be any chemistry when they finally meet? Chemistry.com’s guided 1-2-3-Meet system provides a step-by-step structure to get couples face to face as soon as possible for that all-important “vibe check.” Then there’s a post-meeting “chemistry check,” where each person offers feedback about the date.

The goal is to incorporate this information into the algorithm to provide better matches, but it can also serve as an accuracy check of the data. Say, for instance, that Jack describes himself as a fashionable dresser, but Jill reports that he showed up for their date in flip-flops, cut-offs, and a do-rag. If the feedback from a number of Jack’s first meetings indicates the same problem, Chemistry.com will send him an e-mail saying, “Jack, wear a pair of trousers.”

When I asked Helen Fisher how the site’s scientific algorithm might change based on this user feedback, she said that perhaps the computer could pick up cues about a person’s physical type based on the people he or she finds attractive or unattractive, then send that person closer matches. Or, it might know better than to match me—an avid reader attracted to literary types—with the guy whose personality assessment indicates a literary bent but whose essay reads as follows:

While I do read books, I have a notoriously short attention span for them. As a result, partially read copies of numerous really good (so I’m told) books are scattered around my apartment. When these get set aside, it’s because I’ve gotten sucked into magazines … Every few days, the magazines lose out to DVDs.

It’s also possible that user feedback could change the matching formula completely. “We always look at data,” Fisher said. “If we find that Explorer/Builder to Director/Negotiator is working for more people, if we find the biochemistry is stronger, we’ll adjust that in the formula.” Fisher acknowledged that the system right now is mostly a learning tool—a way to collect large amounts of data, look for patterns, and draw conclusions based on the findings.

Still, even a thoroughly researched biochemical model won’t prevent glitches in the matching system. In Fisher’s view, for example, no scientifically based site would pair her with the men she’s dated, because, as she put it, “they’re all better-looking than me.”

“It would be preposterous for anyone to say they can create a formula that works perfectly,” she said emphatically. “But I do believe that science can help us get close, and that there’s a lot more to be learned.”

"This test doesn’t pretend to be about chemistry,” said Dr. Pepper Schwartz—who developed the Duet Total Compatibility System in conjunction with the two-year-old site PerfectMatch.com. She was speaking by cell phone from San Francisco, where she had just attended a meeting of the National Human Sexuality Resource Center, on whose board she sits. “The chemistry test at Match—that’s not about chemistry either. If I could concoct a test for chemistry, I’d make a zillion dollars.”

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

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