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    The Science of Dating Sites Isn't Real Science

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    Have you ever tried OKCupid? It's horrible. From the moment you fill out the first field on your profile to the moment you leave your keyboard to meet a date, the experience is filled with vanity, self-doubt, cruelty and brutal honesty all at the same time.

    The tricky thing about that, though: real dating is filled with all those things, too. And it's also often horrible, except for the few times that you meet someone awesome, someone you can talk to, someone who's fun to get naked with. Cupid's arrow flies in mysterious directions sometimes, but dating sites like OKCupid have always claimed to offer a better way, a sharper shot at love. Too bad they're wrong.

    A sprawling analysis of the psychology behind dating sites shows that the so-called scientific advantage of using algorithm to find a mate isn't very scientific at all. Or, if you want to be blunt about it, the algorithmic approach just doesn't work — at least not any better than meeting strangers at a bar works. 

    "You do know that the American public has gotten hoodwinked since there was a product to be sold," Thomas Bradbury, a clinical psychology professor at UCLA who's studied the science of dating sites, told LA Weekly last year when the study first came out. "People are getting duped, but it's not a life-or-death situation." His colleague Ben Karney, another author of the study, added, "If you're gonna make scientific claims, act like a scientist. Or don't make scientific claims." 

    It is a love-or-loneliness situation though. TechCrunch writer Gregory Ferenstein just published a personal essay of sorts that tells the story of his six-month-long experiment to prove Karney and company's analysis of dating sites right or wrong. Ferenstein sums up the research pretty concisely. "In essence, the researchers had ripped apart the unscientific claims of dating websites with three compelling arguments 1) no one knows the recipe for love, so a man-made algorithm can’t fare any better 2) scanning profiles leads us to select on superficial traits, and 3) online communicating is a really bad way to start off a love affair," he wrote. "I hoped they were wrong."

    Who wouldn't? In the end, Ferenstein did not find the love of his life. Now, is this because dating sites don't work? Or is it because Ferenstein had bad luck? It doesn't matter. If you read through Ferenstein's story — and his is only one of many rants against dating sites — you'll see that this poor writer not only didn't find a mate, he had a horrible time trying. He said that the dates "felt like a job interview" during which he'd "rattle off an inflated version" of himself. No laughing or smiling really. This was work. And the real dating part came after hours of profile browsing. Ferenstein sums up the process:

    Browsing became a chore, and I was forced to find more efficient ways of contacting girls. To minimize waiting for pages to load, I’d open two dozen tabs, quick scan key questions and blast off emails. Canned responses became a necessity; I’d collect various clever responses, which I could copy and paste, depending on how girls responded. Online dating became about answering more and more profiles, thinking that somehow I’d find my special someone by increasing the probability that she was contacted, no matter how shallow the communication.

    This is not how we were meant to find love.

    Then what was? The short answer is that nobody knows — not OKCupid, not eHarmony, not Match.com, not even the scientists with all the letters after their names and years of social psychology research. "We might compare the understanding and prediction of romantic outcomes to attempts to understand and predict the stock market," Karney and company's analysis reads. "Although economists know a great deal about how the stock market behaves and why, attempts to predict the behavior of the market at a specific point in the future have limited accuracy." Picking a mate is like picking stocks? That actually makes some sense.

    None of this means that you shouldn't try online dating. Heck, if nothing else, it's a way to meet new people, most of whom you'll never talk to again. And if you get laid once or twice, consider it a consolation prize, because chances are you're not going to find your soul mate.

    Image via Flickr