“The joint evaluation model ... is likely to cause users to focus on certain qualities they think are important in a potential partner, perhaps to the neglect of qualities that actually are important,” Finkel wrote in a paper published last year in the journal Psychological Science.
“Certain qualities are easy to focus on in a joint evaluation mode (e.g., height, income, physical appearance),” Finkel later told me in an email. “But the truth is that those qualities aren’t the important ones that predict relationship well-being. What we really want is information about rapport, compatibility of sense of humor, sexual compatibility” and the like.
And computers simply aren’t able to convey information about people the way people can about themselves, Finkel says.
“There is something that people must assess face-to-face before a romantic relationship can begin—the myriad factors such as sense of humor, rapport, interaction style, holistic impressions, and nonconscious mimicry that determine how comfortably two people interact. You can assess compatibility better in 10 minutes of face-to-face time than in 100 hours of profile browsing.”
Finkel and Eastwick wrote that while online dating services greatly expand the dating pool for their users, they don’t necessarily foster better relationships: The sites “do not always improve romantic outcomes; indeed, they sometimes undermine such outcomes.”
At the same time, though, apps like Tinder remain remarkably popular. A little over a year after its launch, two million Tinder “matches” happen each day.
I asked Finkel which online dating site he’d use, if he had to use one. He said it depended on what he was looking for.
“If I were an Evangelical Christian looking for marriage, I might start with eHarmony. If I were looking for an extramarital affair, I might start with AshleyMadison. If I were in my 20s and looking for fun, casual dating, I might start with Tinder,” he said. “The whole point is that you can’t tell much from a profile, anyway, so using some complex algorithm to assess whether the partner is as kind as Mother Teresa or as smart as Einstein is a fool’s errand. Find somebody who seems cute or sexy, and then get face-to-face to assess whether there’s actual compatibility there.”
I also asked him if he’d use online dating at all, as opposed to some other matchmaking mechanism, knowing what he knows about it academically.
“Hell yes,” he said. “It’s probably a bit worse than meeting people organically through one’s existing social network, but, outside of that option, it’s probably as good an approach as any. But it’s important to realize what online dating can and can’t do. It can expand the pool of potential partners, making available a whole slew of people who otherwise would have been unavailable. That’s a huge, huge benefit. But, at least thus far, it can’t figure out who’s compatible with you. That’s your job.”