Online dating: too much of a good thing?

We can write a wish list – and weed out unsuitables – but research shows we are terrible at knowing what we actually want in a mate, so does online dating make it any easier to find Ms or Mr Right?

We’ve moved on from discomfort or embarrassment about using technology to connect with other people.

We’ve moved on from discomfort or embarrassment about using technology to connect with other people.

 

About three years ago, I was sitting with a female friend in a bar on a frantic Saturday night in Dublin. By the end of the night, several worse-for-wear men had wandered in our direction and attempted – some more ably than others – to strike up a conversation.

Apart from feeling bad for them being socially impelled to take the initiative (with the exception of the rude ones who wouldn’t take no for an answer), I was struck by the arbitrariness of it all. You choose a bar out of habit or at random. You interact with the people who happen to be there, in the hope that one of them might be the sort of person you’d want to get to know better.

After the last guy – who stood uncomfortably close, smelled overwhelmingly of something like Lynx Africa and looked like his shirt was sprayed on from a can – strode back to his friends in a huff at rejected advances, I’d had enough.

Slightly embarrassed at the prospect of admitting in a public sphere that I would actually like to meet a man, I’d put off signing up to dating apps. But I’d had enough of weird, often obnoxious strangers. Surely, I thought, being able to “swipe” through potential prospects prior to meeting them would minimise the agonising tension of rejecting or being rejected face-to-face, and eliminate complete mismatches.

Online and app-based dating has changed the way we interact with each other. We’ve moved on from discomfort or embarrassment about using technology to connect with other people. There’s a whole generation of millennials who use dating apps as a matter of course, and it makes sense that we think a bigger pool increases the likelihood of finding someone we’re actually compatible with.

One in four relationships now start online, and that number will only increase. However, research seems to suggest that vast choice – although alluring – actually works against us, and that online dating compounds our biases rather than challenging them. It seems that in searching for Mister (or Ms.) Right, we often ignore the potential of Mister Right In Front Of Us.

More choice than ever
In one sense, online dating platforms have done much good. They’ve taken our immediate social circle out of dating, so you can do what you want without ever having to deal with the judgement of a peer group. Women can enjoy casual sex if they want, without having to deal with the inane stigma of being labelled a slut. Even better, minorities and people with specified, niche interests will always be able to find what they are interested in.

With gay dating apps such as Grindr, gay people outside of big cities can meet others without having to spend years working up the courage to express their sexuality in a heterosexual environment. Dating apps open a world of choice to you. Tinder, for example, is the most-used dating app on earth, and allows you to find people for casual relationships easily.

Bigger sites such as Match. com and OkCupid are great for seeking out commitment, and if you’re into bacon, Sizzl will connect you with other bacon lovers. Yeah, I didn’t realise that loving bacon is a criterion to base any form of relationship on either. But now I know it is, I wouldn’t dream of dating a man who didn’t share my strong preference for thin and crispy non-smoked streaky bacon.

The point is this: whatever you’re into, it’s out there. If you want to have a threesome in a pool of custard with two people dressed as robots, then you’ll find those people online. Where the endless choice becomes complicated is trying to form a traditionally monogamous heterosexual relationship (where bacon isn’t necessarily a central focus).

Despite living in an age where your every dating preference can be catered to online, being face-to-face still matters. When we have first-person experience of the consequences of our behaviour, we behave more conscientiously. When we can hide behind something (like a phone), we’re less responsible. By allowing us to pursue romantic prospects from a distance, online dating puts us at a remove. It softens rejection and allows us to get away with behaviours we wouldn’t engage in if the technological medium weren’t there to protect us from people’s reactions.

In the real world, a man who walks up to almost every woman in a bar and shouts ‘SEX?’ in an enquiring tone would be interpreted as undesirable at a minimum, and certainly go home alone. Online, sending the word in block capitals still probably isn’t a good idea, but for men initiating contact and not getting a response, it isn’t as debilitatingly soul crushing.

Everyone is generally braver and less accountable online – more likely to communicate with others in a way that we would certainly hesitate to when faced with that person looking directly at us in conversation. Undoubtedly, online dating can detach us from other people’s humanity, and foster the worst in some people.

Even though dating apps have a propensity to dehumanise potential suitors, they are a highly convenient way of streamlining possible partners according to our favoured criteria (such as bacon), cutting out time-wasters and minimising the achingly cringe-inducing encounters that we’ve all experienced on terrible first dates.

Still, dating apps have their disadvantages. They allow us to mercilessly and immediately dismiss people who don’t meet our subjective criteria, while eliminating the face-to-face element of initial contact. “Ohhh, he’s a hat guy? I know he fosters puppies and feeds the homeless in his free time, but I just don’t like hat guys.”

This distance can be comforting because it buffers rejection on both sides and allows us to ‘put ourselves out there’ without feeling compromised. However, it also makes it easier for us to close ourselves entirely to the potential of ‘non-ideal’ candidates, some of whom may like hats and smoked bacon but be great anyway. Depending on what you’re looking for online, this can be problematic because, interestingly, we are terrible at knowing what we actually want, and should really have a lot less faith in our criteria.

We create online dating profiles with a strong idea of the sorts of characteristics we want our future partner to have, and we swipe through the available options with these characteristics in mind. It turns out, however, that we are singularly incompetent when it comes to determining what we want with any degree of certainty or consistency.

A Columbia University study conducted an experiment with speed dating where straight men and women were placed in each other’s company for a few minutes and surveyed four times throughout the process – from beforehand to six months after the speed dating. They were asked to rate potential partners based on six different criteria, and the results showed consistently that what we say we want in a partner has no correlation with what we will actually opt for in the moment.

In fact, the criteria we state as important will change to those of the person in front of us when we like them, even if those characteristics don’t at all resemble what we previously said we wanted. When people were actually faced with a room full of dates, and interacted with each person for a few minutes, those they liked rarely fitted the description of what they were looking for before the speed dating started.

So during face-to-face interactions with actual people, we are less likely to dismiss them on the basis of subjective criteria or checked boxes, and more likely to evaluate the individual in front of us as a whole.

Online dating does help us streamline the process of finding someone, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will become more open-minded. In fact, it increases the likelihood that we’ll make more narrow-minded decisions.

We’re not good at predicting what we will actually like when confronted with it, and this makes us less likely to give ourselves the chance to pursue a ‘non-ideal’ (by our own personal standard) candidate. Since we won’t engage with these non-ideal, possibly plaid-loving candidates, our biases are never challenged. People who have preferences but can’t find the right person to meet those criteria in the real world go online to find someone who fulfils their criteria.

It doesn’t occur to us that there are three possible outcomes to imposing these standards. We might meet a partner who ticks every box on our checklist (statistically unlikely), and we’ll like or dislike them. We might eventually meet and be very happy with a partner who doesn’t meet our standard, though we minimise the chance of this by cutting these people out. The last option is we’ll continually apply unrelenting standards to everyone we communicate with, and no one will ever be right.

Despite the scope of dating apps, you can’t find a partner with a shopping list. A list makes casual nights out and sex much easier to find, but doesn’t necessarily increase your chances of forging meaningful long-term connections with compatible people.

If you are using dating sites to search for a potential partner as opposed to casual sex, your criteria will obviously be fussier. When you have to tolerate someone for a long period of time, you’re going to care a lot more about how loudly they chew and whether they wash every day. Less subjective things like what they do for a living also matter. You’re going to be more concerned with their background and their general beliefs – you don’t want to end up having lunch with someone who keeps a ham sandwich in their pocket.

Education, income and race
Dating apps don’t favour certain types of people, but users of dating apps do. The criteria that users are generally most immovable on are education, income and race, though obviously appearance and age come into it too.

Education levels matter to people seeking a partner. In a US study of 22,000 users of a major online dating service, results showed that both men and women ideally prefer a partner with an education level that matches their own; though women are significantly less open-minded than men when it comes to dating someone below their own education level. You may think fair enough, we’ve worked too long and hard on equality to enter into unequal partnerships now, but statistically this creates problems for straight women who want to settle down.

In his book Date-onomics, Jon Birger predicts that due to consistently higher levels of female university graduates than male and increased competition for male partners (among women who want one), women will have to part with some of the traditional criteria they apply to men. Despite their preference for an equally educated partner, large numbers of straight women will either have to pair with non-professional men whose education level is lower than their own, or remain single.

For whatever reason – ideas of traditional gender roles and classism likely play a strong part – women are overwhelmingly not in favour of what Birger calls ‘mixed-collar’ marriages where they are the higher earning professional partners. This is good news for men, who in these social circumstances can dictate the terms of the relationship, be more promiscuous, commit later and have a larger number of women competing for them, but not such good news for women who want to settle down, or have children inside a set window of fertility.

Another red line for a lot of men and women dating online is, unsurprisingly, wealth. According to a Match.com 2014 survey of all its UK members, straight women ideally seek a partner who earns between £50,000 and £100,000. Interestingly, men seem to seek out partners who earn less than them or who can provide them with a cash-rich lifestyle – they either look for a woman earning less than £25,000 annually, or a woman earning over £250,000. Figures on income and education indicate that we are moving (if slowly) away from rigid traditional gender roles around education and money, with women imposing much firmer criteria than men.

But I wouldn’t be rushing to the moral high ground if I were male. Men consistently rate appearance as the most important criterion in searching for a partner online. Women aren’t immune to superficial dating preferences – they equate poor income levels and short height in men as equally undesirable characteristics. Every inch under 5ft 10in puts a man further and further down the scale of female desirability – that is unless he has compensating characteristics, like wealth or the physique of Hercules on a good day.

The most controversial of all preferences gleaned from online dating sites is race. The strength of the tendency to date within our own ethnicity is borderline embarrassing, not just because of its existence, but because we all seem to think that this bigotry doesn’t apply to us when we’re asked. Despite most respondents in an OkCupid survey saying that vocal racism would put them off dating a person, it seems that same-race preference is stronger than ever.

When it comes to what we actually do, we’re getting less open-minded about interracial dating, with black women faring worst overall in preference ratings. So while only four per cent of OkCupid users answered ‘Yes’ when asked, “Is interracial marriage a bad idea?” same-race online dating biases are pronounced and have increased since 2008. So are we all just racist? It’s a difficult question to answer.

Our closed-mindedness around education, income and race is saddening because one of the healthiest aspects of online dating is its capacity to throw us into the path of the sorts of people we wouldn’t meet on an evening out with friends. So it’s unfortunate that when faced with the opportunity to date people outside our standard expectations, we have a strong general tendency to dismiss them on arbitrary indicators of education, wealth or ethnicity.

Since research has proved that we’re terrible at vetting our own partners, you would think we would take the opportunity to meet varied types of people rather than using dating apps to reinforce our real-world limitations in a limitless digital environment. The best advice for someone struggling in the world of online dating is: alter the parameters of your income search; lower necessary education levels and – I can’t believe I have to write this – be less racist.

Online dating is a brilliant tool, but like all other tools, it’s how you use it that matters. Hammers are terrible for digging holes. Unfortunately for some – women of colour, men who aren’t tall or particularly financially secure, and others who are unfairly dismissed on dating sites in large numbers – the face-to-face can still be the best bet.

Since we’re more likely on average to give people a fair chance when they’re standing in front of us, perhaps a bar on a Friday night, or a Salsa class or wherever else we used to go to meet people, isn’t such a bad idea after all. It’s not always settling to consider Mister (or Ms.) Right In Front of You.

Unless they smell like Lynx Africa or enjoy smoked bacon. Some bigotries are justified.

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