Online dating sites advertise groundbreaking technology and sophisticated formulas and state-of-the-art programming to help you find your true soul mate.
But does it work?
Though the technology found its own match with the rise of the Internet, the idea has been around for half a century. In 1965, a pair of University of Michigan undergrads found each other with the help of a primitive computer dating program.
Mina Jo Rosenbloom was in her junior year when she and Michael Linver, just admitted to medical school, became computer dating’s digital Adam and Eve. She didn’t have much faith that it would work. He came across a crazy ad for a dating service that used computers. Their mutual willingness to take a chance paid off.
Four and a half decades after they were hitched by an IBM mainframe, Michael and Mina Jo Linver are still married.
“That was the beginning of what turned out to be an incredible relationship for the rest of my life,” he said.
It was also the start of an industry designed to exploit a market: millions of singles eager – or desperate – to find a match. Punch cards and personal ads gave way to the first online dating sites, launched in the mid-90s. By 2001, industry revenues were just $40 million. Today, they’re approaching $2 billion.
With some 1,500 sites claiming they can match your personality type, your genes – even your facial structure - to potential mates, no company touts a “formula for success” as much as eHarmony, which owns 15 percent of the market.
The company says the goal is to help you find someone - like you.
Similarity is the thing that allows couples to understand each other better, said Gian Gonzaga, the company’s chief research scientist, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology from U.C. Berkeley. “We like to say that opposites attract and then later on they attack.”
Marriage-minded and straight-laced
At eHarmony, Gonzaga said he focuses on appealing to the marriage-minded and the straight-laced.
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“We’ve always focused on long-term relationships,” he said. “That feels very unhip and very squarish. But really, when it comes down to it, our desire to find someone to connect with, to find a long-term relationship is a very deep part of our psyche.”
Long before the conversation turns to matrimony, finding your online match takes commitment. Subscribers fill out a compatibility survey with hundreds of questions and pay as much as $60 a month. The results, according to eHarmony’s claims, are striking.
“On average, 542 people a day got married after meeting on eHarmony,” said Gonzaga. “That’s about 5 percent of all of the newlyweds in the population. It's almost 100,000 couples a year.”
Those numbers are hard to substantiate. But they do include Steve Caplette, who was overcome with emotion on the day he wed Sally Petruzello. For her part, it was love at first click.
“He was my first match,” she said. “You usually get seven people, and he was literally the first one that I opened up.”
Among other compatible traits, eHarmony found that Steve and Sally both tend to be more introverted, have strong anger management skills, and a sense of romance. eHarmony’s algorithm worked for Steve and Sally. But it’s not at all clear that kind of success is typical.
“I think it's fair to say that we know a little, but we probably don't know enough to have an algorithm that we think is really good,” said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. “If you look demographically it doesn't look like they're increasing the amount of marriages.
Ariely questions whether algorithms used by online dating sites actually work. His research was sparked by a profoundly personal understanding of the nature of human attraction. In his late teens, he was hospitalized for three years with a bad burn injury as he healed, he worried that his value in the dating market had plummeted.
“I knew my place in the social hierarchy before I got burned,” he said. “I knew which girls would date me in principle and which ones would not. And I started thinking about where do I fit in, where do I fit in now?
Ariely eventually fit in as an expert on human behavior. He studied thousands of online interactions, examining market value — what makes us attractive online. In men, the research shows, height and salary are key. Ariely said that a 5-foot, 9-inch tall man like himself would need to add another $40,000 a year to his annual income to hold the same attraction as another guy who stands 5'10".
Education also counts - for some online daters.
“More educated men are more desirable,” said Ariely. “For women, there's no value for education. Women who are more educated don't necessarily get any more attractive in online dating.”
For some singles, the idea of reducing romantic attraction to an algorithm may seem too simplistic. But Ariely says the problem is the simplistic way sites make us describe ourselves, using attributes that are easily searchable by computer but aren’t so useful in figuring out who we like or love.
“The (online) description is very skeleton-like,” he said. “We fill the gap in over-optimistic ways. And then you go and meet them for coffee, there's a gap between what you built in your mind and between what they really are. And that gap causes tremendous disappointment.”
That doesn’t make for an auspicious start, especially since, according to Ariely, setting up each of those cups of coffee takes an average six hours of online drudgery.
'Tyranny of choice'
To solve the paralyzing problem of too many possibilities, which scientists call “the tyranny of choice,” online matchmaker eHarmony doesn’t let you browse its database. They let their computers do the searching and sorting for you.
“Imagine you walk into a stadium, and you see tens of thousands of people and you say, 'I wish I could go on a date tonight,” said Joseph Essas, eHarmony’s technology chief. “So you look at all those tens of thousands of people, what are you going to do? It's overwhelming.”
Instead, eHarmony’s algorithm doles out just a few matches per customer per day. Then it’s your turn. Computers are not good with emotions and feelings, said Essas. But they’re very good at finding needles in a haystack.
And eHarmony claims to have a big haystack – but it’s not exactly clear just how big. At one point the company claimed some 40 million registered users. Some industry analysts say the pool of active users is more like 750,000.
A percentage of the daters who appear on eHarmony—and other dating sites—are not even paying subscribers, leading one critic to say that many users are, “flirting into the void.” Still, eHarmony is doing a number of things well, according to Dan Ariely.
“First of all, they have this million-question survey,” he said. “By doing that they basically kind of separate the serious people from the non-serious people. On top of that they create this belief in their algorithm. And they say, ‘look, we have some magic potion here.’ “
That may have a self-fulfilling effect on customers, but it hasn’t convinced Ariely that online dating companies are using hard science.
“The truth is, we're very far away, in the science part, from understanding how this works,” he said.
For some, the proof is in the pudding. After forty-four years of marriage, three children, and six grandchildren, Michael and Mina Jo Linver are still grateful for that mainframe with a heart.
“The rest is the magic, the mystic kind of elements that attract people to each other,” said Michael. “And that's something that I don't think any computer can really do. It just either happens or it doesn’t.
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(Love at First Byte: The Secret Science of Online Dating premieres on CNBC on Thursday, February 9 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. It will re-air at 10 p.m. ET/PT, 12 a.m. ET, and 1 a.m. ET; Sunday, February 12 at 10 p.m. ET; Tuesday, February 14 at 8 p.m. ET and on Monday, February 20 at 8 p.m. ET.)
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