Logging On For Love

The author of this month's cover story talks about love and the new research that's being produced by Internet matchmaking services

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.

Elizabeth Wasserman

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."

Did you get the impression that any of these people are looking for an absolute unified theory of dating—that there's some Holy Grail they're searching for?

I think they want to come close, but they're also very realistic. The people who are most passionate about this are the ones at eHarmony, who are saying, "Okay, we feel like we've got a model that works really well in terms of long-term emotional compatibility. And now we're going to sort of overlay this short-term model, this physical compatibility model. And if we can mix those two, that's the Holy Grail." That's the idea for them. But I don't think anybody is so naïve that they would believe they have the absolute power to match people romantically.

I believe it was Kristin Kelly of Chemistry.com who compared this kind of matchmaking to the diet industry. It seemed rather ironic, given the diet industry's reputation for not being terribly effective at keeping people thin. Do you think that analogy works?

I think what she meant by the analogy was that you need to have a balance between structure and letting people have some control. Some diet programs are super structured and it doesn't work for real people's lifestyles. And then there are the diets that don't have enough structure, so people can't stay on them. Same goes for online dating. A lot of people I spoke to who have used eHarmony said they didn't like how much structure it had—that they were forced to waste a lot of time online with people they ultimately had no chemistry with and could have ruled out with one face-to-face meeting. Other people who have met through eHarmony actually liked the structure. They said, "If I hadn't spent that time, I wouldn't have given that person a chance, and now that person is my husband or my wife." Personally, I think you do have to have a balance, because the sites that give you no structure are chaotic, and using them becomes sort of like a job. These scientific sites actually do some of the work for you. You just don't want them doing all of the work for you.

What was your personal experience like on these sites? You mention that the scientific matchmaking didn't do much for you. Did you benefit from it at all?

Well, I was actually really excited to try these sites, because I had used JDate, which is one of the free-for-all sites I mentioned. I was really curious to see what would happen and who they would match me with. A big part of it is whether you like what they're telling you about yourself. When they gave me my personality assessment on eHarmony, I actually didn't feel that it was accurate. The one I took on PerfectMatch was really accurate in terms of my personality, but it wasn't necessarily the most flattering assessment. And I wouldn't necessarily want to meet someone who was attracted to certain qualities that that personality assessment had.

That's sounds like a very postmodern problem: you wouldn't want to date the kind of guy who would want to date the kind of woman this quiz revealed you to be.

It's kind of like that Groucho Marx thing, about not wanting to be in a club that would have you as a member.

That raises an important question about the data these scientists are collecting on people and relationships and personality types. The scientists you talked to seemed very excited about the sheer quantity of material they were getting from these mass-marketed online questionnaires. Yet their subjects are people who have a vested interest in presenting themselves in a favorable light. As a former medical student yourself, how reliable do you think this data is?

Well, I think the problem is in the way they're collecting the data. It's self-report. Anecdotally, we all know that women tend to lie in their profiles about their weight and their age. And men tend to lie about their height and how much hair they have. That just seems to be a given. But there are other things that people may lie about as well—and I use the word "lie" loosely. They may answer questions in a way that's sort of fudging the truth a little bit, just the way that on a first date, you might not tell stories about how many years of therapy you've really had or you might say that your last relationship ended amicably when really, you stole your ex-boyfriend's entire CD collection as retribution for him cheating on you but now you're friends and it's amicable. Twenty years from now, these sites probably won't be relying on self-report. They're going to come up with other ways of getting that data. What they talked about at eHarmony was actually doing simulations on the computer, where they put you into a situation like you're at a bar or a party. They kind of mix up the number of people and the gender mix and gather data on each person's behavior in these situations.

The state these sites are at now does miss some subtleties. In trying so hard to match you on broad factors, like personality type, they fail to register quite a bit. And sometimes it's almost like using a really big knife for something that you need a really fine-tuned knife for. It may work, you may get numbers out of it, but romantic compatibility is delicate. It's not something that can be mass-produced. The way I answered a certain question doesn't necessarily capture the nuance. I would hope that the science would develop to the point where it would be able to ask questions that capture that kind of nuance.

There does seem to be an overwhelming emphasis on personality types in the questionnaires. Why so much focus on type-casting as opposed to more concrete matters like musical tastes or political leanings or dietary habits?

Well, eHarmony focuses quite a lot on your values as well. I mean their whole model is based on similarity, and that's across the board. They're talking about inherent personality characteristics, but there are also a lot of questions about your values. Whether that's your religious beliefs or how many children you want, that kind of thing. Pepper Schwartz, too, asks about values. Things like money—she really wants honest answers about those things. I think that the sites that are not scientifically based are the ones that match people more based on mutual interests. They'll say, "What kind of music do you listen to?" and "What do you like to do in your free time?" And you'll check off whether you like to go out to concerts or to sit at home and read. So in a way, even though it's not presented scientifically, these other sites are indirectly matching on a lot of the same criteria. There's overlap. What you do in your free time and what kind of music you listen to probably correlates, to some degree, with a certain personality type.

It certainly seems that among teenagers and twenty-somethings—the clientele of social networking sites like MySpace and Friendster—personal taste in music and movies is the driving force in relationships.

Yeah, on Friendster, for example, you can search for people who like a specific band. My cousin, who's in college, uses Facebook.com, which is like Friendster for college students. And it's all about who likes this kind of music and whose favorite movie is this. But the question is, how important is that in a relationship? How important is it that my partner thinks Curb Your Enthusiasm is a great show? I don't know that that's as important as whether our temperaments are similar or compatible in a broader sense.

The main question seems to be, should these sites be tracking the things that make people connect in the first place or the things that will matter in the long run? Neil Clark Warren's approach obviously represents the latter extreme—examining marriages that have lasted fifty years and trying to base a matchmaking system on his observations. Is a long-term relationship something that you think can be reverse-engineered?

Well, it's not dissimilar from looking at somebody who's run the course with breast cancer and saying, "Okay, we've seen what goes awry there and we've seen what happens over time." It's like a scientist looking at any long-term process and trying to trace it to its origins. That's how medical science has worked for a long time. When you look at happily married couples, there are patterns you can see in terms of what keeps these people together through all life's ups and downs. A couple may look really compatible in the beginning, but then somebody gets sick or they have kids and it becomes more stressful or their lifestyle changes or somebody loses a job or whatever. It makes sense to look at marriages that work.

At any point in this process, did you think to yourself, I have an idea about how I would go about doing this? Lori Gottlieb's patented matching system?

If I had that I wouldn't be single.

Pepper Schwartz is single. How does she explain that?

But she was married for twenty-three years and then recently re-entered the dating pool. Twenty-three years isn't a bad run. I mean, look at the statistics.

As you point out in the example of a guy one of the sites matched you with, who had ADD and couldn't finish a book, a lot of the nuance has to come out in the person's own words—in the essays they write. And then you're getting into questions of writing ability as well.

Yeah, although it's not really writing talent so much. Because one of the things I did talk about at eHarmony was how many people made spelling errors in their essays. I thought, it's one thing to have a typo here or there. But if you really can't spell basic words, then a lot of people who are college-educated are not going to be interested in you. And Galen pointed out to me that they found no correlation between people who are highly intelligent and people who can spell well. So he said, We try to tell our users to please spell-check and so on, but in fact, you can't really rule people out on that if you're thinking that that means they're not intelligent.

And at the same time, if it bugs you it bugs you. No one can tell you not to be turned off by a bad speller, right?

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It doesn't matter if science matches us—all else being equal, I'm not going to get particularly excited about a guy who can't spell. But on the other hand, I see Galen's point. He told me that one of the smartest people he knows—his former advisor—still can't spell Galen's name right. There are different kinds of intelligence. Could Einstein spell well? I don't know. Do innovative people like Bill Gates spell well? What would his essays look like?

What do you think it is that brought online dating over the threshold from being a kind of last refuge of computer geeks to something that attractive, upwardly-mobile people can use and talk about using?

I think it happened as the Internet itself became the domain of everybody and not just the computer geeks, and we began to use it for everything. It was just natural that that would extend to dating. If you don't have time to go out and find that person and you're really serious about meeting someone, it's an obvious way to broaden your reach.

So it's largely a matter of efficiency.

Yeah. It's much more efficient. Why should I go to a bar and take the risk that nobody I'm interested will be there during the two hours I'm there, when I can spend half an hour searching online for people that I am likely to be interested in? At worst, I've wasted half an hour. And at least I didn't have to blow-dry my hair.

How much of the appeal, then, is the idea of putting yourself in the hands of experts? You make the obvious analogy between eHarmony-type sites and the age-old institution of the matchmaker, but how far does that analogy go?

Well, I think that, just as with a real live matchmaker, your odds of meeting someone are only as good as the matchmaker is. With the online version, your odds of meeting someone on one of these sites is only as good as the science is. Apart from the randomness factor, which you'll find anywhere. But with matchmakers it's a lot more idiosyncratic, and has a lot more to do with intuition. It's like what Annie, the matchmaker I interviewed at the Deborah Winkler agency, said about how they choose their matchmakers: they look for people who just kind of "get it." And they either get it or they don't. There are people who really have a sense of who might click. It's the same with any expert. If you go to a board-certified doctor, he or she is guaranteed to have a certain level of training. But some have a more innate knack for doing diagnosis than others. With the scientific matching, the matches are only going to be as good as the system. But it's harder to take the subtleties into account.

They're effectively trying to develop Artificial Intelligence for matchmaking.

You could look at it that way. But I don't think the AI aspect is what intrigues these people. They happen to be using computer models because the Internet brings so many people to one place at one time. As Gian Gonzaga at eHarmony told me, it's the scale. You won't get that with a real live matchmaker.

Do you think the widespread interest in scientific matchmaking is in part the result of people feeling overwhelmed by the complexities of modern life, and the burden of too much freedom? Is there any aspect of this that's a technological mimicry of the arranged marriage?

From the archives:

"Uncertain Objects of Desire" (March 2000)
In India, a country that straddles the old and the new, a good place to look for signs of shifting values might be the matrimonial columns of The Times of India. By Chitra Divakaruni

No, I don't see that. The major difference of course is that you have willing participants here, whereas in the arranged marriage it was like, "Oh, you two are both Hasidic Jews, and you're female and you're male and you come from similar backgrounds, so you're going to get married." Those were arranged marriages. Here you have people saying, "I'm really looking for someone with these qualities." You can pick whatever qualities you want. When you're submitting to an arranged marriage, I don't get the sense that you're saying, "Can you help me find someone that I might like?" That's what you're saying when you're going to one of these sites.

Speaking of the ethnic marriage arrangement, what do you make of the spectacular success of JDate, out of all proportion with the Jewish representation in the population? Do you think there's something about Jewish culture that has a proclivity for professional matchmaking or for the desire to meet in an organized way?

I think JDate is very similar to sites like Yahoo! Personals or Match.com or any of the big ones. As far as why as a niche site it became more popular than the other niche sites, I'm not sure. I'm not sure what it is about Jewish culture that would make people look for a match online more so than any other group. Other than pressure from Jewish mothers, perhaps.

It's like a digital Jewish mother, JDate.

Yeah, Except you don't have the guidance of someone who knows you personally.

What about the rationality of it all? A lot of people seem to shy away from using online search tools to find a mate because they feel it's too clinical—that it takes away from the romance and mystery of love. Is there anything to that?

I don't know that there ever was all that much mystery around romance. Traditionally, the community played a much larger role, and you'd meet people because you were part of this community. I don't know that it was any more mysterious than that. I think that people today are just substituting for the lack of community in the real world with online communities. But I don't think that makes it any less romantic. Because I think the idea of old-fashioned romance exists largely in our fantasies. When you meet someone in the real world, we think, "That's so romantic! It was fated! It was destiny!" Why is the romance and sense of destiny diminished just because you paid $25.99 for an online service? It's almost more romantic, in a destiny sense, because of the millions of people online, you two somehow managed to find each other.

In your piece on searching for a sperm donor, you mentioned that there were striking similarities between that process and online dating. Tell me about that.

They're very similar. The sperm bank was like going to an online dating site in terms of what the profiles looked like. The irony is that you think when you're looking for genetic materials, you're not going to care whether you really connect with the person. That you're really looking for what they offer in terms of health history, appearance, and intelligence. You think it doesn't really matter whether you like the person. But it turns out that I actually went with the donor I liked the best based on his essays and his audiotape. I didn't pick the guy who was the best genetic specimen in the purely eugenic sense. I just liked the guy. I guess you could say that if I saw this guy's profile on a dating site, I'd probably send him an email.