We've long known that sex sells. Few, however, could have predicted that a computerized matchmaking program driven by a 439-question personality quiz would be a red hot ticket.
In her March cover story for The Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb recounts how Dr. Neil Clark Warren—a grandfather with a PhD in psychology whose intellectual influences range from Carl Jung to Mr. Rogers—took an academic research project on marital longevity and parlayed it into a 9 million-member dating site called eHarmony. With its patented Compatibility Matching System TM and its strict rules on who may meet whom, when and where, eHarmony was an attempt to impose structure and scientific rigor onto the unruly world of online dating. (Full disclosure: I co-founded and currently run a personals site of the unstructured school, called Mate1.com.)
As millions flocked to eHarmony to find soul mates, and thousands reported walking down the aisle with a Compatible Match, Dr. Warren's competitors decided to get into the scientific matching game. Sites like PerfectMatch and industry heavyweight Match.com lured relationship experts from the ivory tower to help devise their own compatibility systems. For their part, these experts insist that their leap to the private sector wasn't just financially motivated: the prospect of a virtual laboratory to which millions of eager volunteers would flock, allowing themselves to be subjected to probing questions and behavioral testing (with experimental results emerging in the form of who ends up dating whom) was an academic dream-come-true.
If Dr. Warren turns the process of finding a mate into something akin to a course of treatment, Chemistry.com (an offshoot of Match.com) tries to make it feel more like fun. Chemistry.com's Chief Scientific Advisor Dr. Helen Fisher has devised a compatibility program reminiscent of an elaborate game of "rock, paper, scissors." Her quirky, 146-item questionnaire is designed to slot each member into one of four human personality categories—The Director, The Builder, The Explorer or The Negotiator—and to rule out mismatches by type. (To those who consider the four-way personality split a tad crude, Dr. Fisher points out that it's a tradition hailing back to the great Roman physician Galen, espoused by the likes of Aristotle and Carl Jung.) Her quiz includes such surprising questions as "Do you sometimes make faces at yourself in the mirror"—a notion Fisher imported from her background in anthropology. "People with a sense of humor make faces at themselves in the mirror," Fisher tells Gottlieb. "I got that from an academic article. I'm not sure if it's true, but they're fun questions."
While they differ in style and focus, all of these programs are based on a common precept: that by asking just the right combination of questions and applying a theory of what makes and breaks relationships over the long term, a piece of software can predict a successful romance. The scientists Gottlieb interviews seem confident that, given enough time and data, they will come up with highly effective matchmaking machines.
But there's one thing none of them seem able to account for: the magnetism that, on some enchanted evening, draws two types together in the first place. In the words of Dr. Pepper Schwartz, the in-house sociologist at Perfectmatch.com (also developer of the patented DUET® Total Compatibility System, and author of Finding your Perfect Match), "If I could concoct a test for chemistry, I'd make a zillion dollars."
Lori Gottlieb is a former Hollywood studio executive, a one-time medical student and currently a freelance writer who has published two books, Stick Figure and Inside the Cult of Kibu. Her previous piece for The Atlantic was about her search for a sperm donor. She lives in Los Angeles with her newborn baby.
We spoke by phone on December 30.
In an era in which women are increasingly able to get by perfectly well without a man to depend on, what do you think accounts for the ever-growing willingness among women to spend time, energy and money on finding the perfect match?
Well, I don't think that people are looking for the perfect match. People who do online dating are looking for a match, the right match, not the perfect match. I don't think the standards are higher just because you're looking online. The theme is that we're all looking for someone who we connect with. And if we haven't found them in the real world, we'll look online.
So you don't think the online phenomenon makes people pickier or more fastidious about the qualities they're looking for in people?
No, I don't think so. I do think that there's a temptation, because you can choose from a number of criteria, to say, "I want someone of this height, this educational background, and whose essay reads like such-and-such." And it's true that in the screening process you may rule out somebody a little bit more quickly than if you met them at a party, where maybe there might be some sort of chemistry to keep you talking to that person.
You're writing about a system that offers a seemingly infinite supply of new dating candidates, and a tool that's supposed to help you find your best bet among them. Is that a system that promotes monogamous relationships or perpetual restlessness?
I think that the people who are looking to be matched by a more scientific method are looking for monogamy. What they really want is that partner who's best suited to them. If you go on any of the popular dating sites where it's a free-for-all and you're left to wade through millions of profiles by yourself, you may be drawn to someone who is completely wrong for you. So you might bounce from person-to-person-to-person more quickly than you might if you're matched with the right person. Now I don't know whether the science is working yet. At least in my experience, as I was researching this piece, I personally did not find that the matches I was getting were any better than the matches that I would get on a site that didn't do any scientific matching. In fact, they seemed to be far less suited to me. But I think anyone who seeks a scientific method is saying, "I'm really serious about this and I'm looking for a monogamous relationship and I'm looking for my soul mate."
As opposed to the people on the free-for-all sites who are just cruising?
No, I think that you get a mix on those. There are a lot of people looking for their soul mates on any online dating service, but there are people on online dating services who are just looking to have fun. And you're going to find fewer of those people on the scientifically matched sites because these people want the right fit badly enough that they're enlisting professionals to help. They're looking for a relationship that's much more substantial.
What's your take on the people who are in the scientific matchmaking business? How earnest are they? Do you think they really believe they're getting somewhere—that they're doing a real public good with this research—or do you think that it's somewhat cynical?
I think Neil Clark Warren absolutely believes that he's helping couples. Not only that he's helping couples to meet, but that he's helping them to have a more satisfying relationship as they stay together over time. And I think he absolutely believes in the science behind this. That's why he's ramping up their R & D right now with all these academics: because he feels like he wants to find out more. He wants the answers and he's very serious about it. He started this company based on his own personal interest in helping singles find satisfying relationships. Some of the other sites I researched were started by business people, and the scientific advisors were hired after the fact. Even in those cases, I got the impression that the scientists very much believe in what they're doing. But they recognize the limitations of their research. People like Pepper Schwartz and Helen Fisher would be the first to say, "Look, there is no way we can come up with some magic formula for matching people romantically. We're going to do the best we can to find people matches that are well-suited to them, but there's always going to be that je ne sais quoi factor that we can't do anything about. There's never going to be anything that can absolutely predict romantic compatibility to the degree that we'd like."