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 went out with a man for about a year who, if I’d taken the test with him—we both would have known we should have stopped early on,” Schwartz said. “But, of course, I was attracted to him, and probably to the characteristics that were wrong for me, for the wrong reasons. That’s what attraction can do. But if you’re also armed with information about compatibility—or lack of compatibility—from the very beginning, you might think twice before getting involved, before you make the mistake of e-mailing the cute guy in the picture, like you might on Match.”

Schwartz, who had been married for twenty-three years before she reentered the dating pool, empathizes with PerfectMatch users. “I know what dating is like,” she said. “I’m doing it, too. You start to burn out, and you need to find a certain amount of positive reinforcement. So if we can cut down the really inappropriate personalities for you, we can help out.”

Of course, before the days of Myers-Briggs and Per- fectMatch and academic departments devoted to deconstructing romantic relationships, there were matchmakers. And today, despite the science, they’re still thriving. One of the West Coast’s largest matchmaking agencies is called Debra Winkler Personal Search, and its slogan is the opposite of scientific: “The art of the perfect match.” Indeed, in the FAQ section of the company’s Web site, the reply to “How do you go about matching members?” reads as follows:

Our matchmakers use a combination of tools—including experience and intuition—when matching members. We start with basic demographic information such as age, religion, location, physical requirements and other preferences. Personality profiles are also used but not relied upon exclusively. In the end, however, it comes down to your personal matchmaker.
They hand-select the individuals for you to meet. And it is not based on some absolute, statistical formula. It’s more like a feeling, gained from years of experience, that tells them you and another person would be great for each other.

Winkler founded the company eighteen years ago and sold it in 2003, leaving its day-to-day operations to Annie Ahlin, who worked with Winkler for fourteen years and until November was the company’s president.

“Intuition is a big part of determining long-term compatibility,” Ahlin told me. She said many of the agency’s clients are people who have tried scientific matching online but had no luck. Ahlin believes she knows why. “When you’re reading a profile online, or looking at a photo, it’s one-dimensional,” she explained. “It’s that person’s PR for themselves.” There’s no substitute, she believes, for sitting down with a person one-on-one to get the full picture.

“When we meet our clients, we get a multifaceted impression,” she said. “I may read on your profile that you love cats, but when I ask you about it, I learn that you had a beloved cat when you were three and now you’re allergic to them. Or, I’ll read a personality profile, but when I sit down with this person, I’ll think, Wow, I didn’t know she had this kind of energy. It wasn’t reflected on the page.”

While the Winkler clients fill out personality profiles similar to the ones found online, the difference, Ahlin believes, is the hour-and-a-half interview. Some of these matchmakers have a psychological background, but others are recruited for different reasons. “We go for people who have a heart, are good listeners, are empathetic, and who just have a feel for matching people for the long term,” Ahlin told me. “On resumes, we look for evidence of good people skills—PR, customer service, nursing. It’s not necessarily about an intellectual understanding. People either get it or they don’t.”

Ahlin estimates the agency’s success rate at 70 percent—meaning that 70 percent of clients either end up in a relationship engineered by their matchmakers or get engaged to someone they’ve met through the agency. But unlike the studies being done at eHarmony, there’s no follow-up to determine how long these relationships or marriages last, or how satisfying they are down the line. Besides, Ahlin admitted, other variables may play a role in the high number of pairings. “When you pay eight or ten thousand dollars for a service like ours,” she said, “you seriously want to find someone. It puts the notion ‘I’m really ready’ into your subconscious.”

Ahlin and her matchmakers use feedback forms like those on Chemistry.com to learn how a match went after two clients have met in person. But whereas the Chemistry.com people classify this step as part of their scientific research, Ahlin says simply, “This way, you know what it is that works so you can get closer the next time—it helps us with intuition.”

Often when Ahlin talks about intuition, she describes the same principles that the scientists I spoke with use in their empirically based matching systems. For instance, in matching couples, she follows what is essentially the similarity- complementarity model. “For a match to be successful,” Ahlin said, “a couple’s goals have to be the same, they have to want the same things in life.” But, she added, “that doesn’t mean they should be the same person. On the one hand, it’s good if they have the same experiences, but sometimes having experiences that are different adds energy to the relationship.”

Like Helen Fisher and Pepper Schwartz, Annie Ahlin believes that similarity and complementarity are situational models. “Each person is unique and contradictory,” she told me, “and you can’t just group people into big categories, the way the personality profiles do. So one person who is a Type A may be attracted to Type A in the beginning, but then we send them out and find out they need a Type B. So we adjust along the way. We’re always adjusting. It’s not a scientific process, it’s an intuitive one.”

Gian Gonzaga, the UCLA researcher hired by eHarmony, doesn’t dismiss matchmakers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the basic constructs they’re measuring are the exact same ones [that scientists measure],” he said. “Those who are good at matchmaking are the ones who get that four or five things are really critical.”

I asked Gonzaga what those four or five things are, and he let out a long sigh.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, sheepishly. “It’s funny enough, but I don’t know. A similar sense of values. Other things, like agreeableness or warmth, are probably fairly important in terms of people matching up. You want two people who are relatively similar on wanting to cuddle, or things like that.”

At the word “cuddle,” I raised an eyebrow.

“It’s kind of an unscientific term,” he said, “but … ”

I asked Gonzaga if using science to try to find lasting love might be too lofty a goal—a method that seems promising in theory but that turns out to be no more effective than consulting a matchmaker or cruising at your local bar. He disagreed.

“Imagine being in a bar,” he said, “and how hard it would be to find five people you might connect with. If you actually match those people in the beginning, you’re increasing your odds of meeting someone. Also, some people go to a bar to have a drink, some to meet people. We put people seriously looking for a relationship in one place, at the same time. So I think it’s both the medium and it’s the scale. And a matchmaker only knows so many people, but there are eight million or ten million users on eHarmony.”

Moreover, in the future, science-based dating sites will evolve in ways that mimic real-world situations. Galen Buckwalter, eHarmony’s research-and-development head, said that rather than relying on self-reports to assess how comfortable a person feels in social situations, his group is developing a model that will use computer simulation to immerse people in scenarios—a bar, a party, an intimate dinner—where variables like gender composition can be altered. “How does this person interact differently as the variables change?” Buckwalter asked. “I don’t think we’ll be relying on self-report twenty years from now. I think not only will data collection advance, but so will our analysis. We’re just at the beginning, really.”

Indeed, it may well take a generation before we learn whether the psychological, anthropological, or sociological model works best. Or maybe an entirely different theory will emerge. But at the very least, these dating sites and the relationships they spawn will help us to determine whether science has a place, and if so, how much of a place, in affairs of the heart.

Meanwhile, until these sites start sending me better dating prospects, I figured I’d take Neil Clark Warren up on his offer to introduce me to the thirty-eight-year-old single board member he thought would be such a good match for me. But when I asked a company spokesman about him, I was told that he had recently begun seeing someone. Did they meet through eHarmony? My potential soul mate declined to answer.

Lori Gottlieb is the author of Stick Figure (2000) and a co-author of the forthcoming I Love You, Nice to Meet You.
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Lori Gottlieb is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

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