The real problem with online dating
Match.com sucks. eHarmony sucks. OK Cupid sucks. Plenty of Fish really sucks. (Although, it should be noted, at least those last two have the advantage of being free.) I assume that Christian Mingle sucks, although perhaps in ways I haven’t thought about yet.
I hate online dating, and if the comment threads on Lisa Barnard’s much-read post and my own critique of the process from last year are any indication, a lot of you do, too. It’s shallow, it inspires dishonesty and while there are certainly cases where people find happiness with online dating sites, I suspect the most common case is frustration and a general decrease in the ambient self-esteem levels of those participating.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. For starters, I’m a Lonely Guy who’d love to find a beautiful, intelligent woman to share my life with and the uselessness of online dating (which bit me in the ass again this past week) is something I can’t help taking personally. In addition, I’ve been talking with a friend lately about the problem. He believes that there has to be a better way. He’s also someone with resources and connections, and thinks that if we can figure out what that better way is, we very well might be able to bring it to life. And, you know, make a few bucks in the process. Yes, this idea interests me a great deal.
In some ways, I suspect that my personal situation reveals a number of online dating’s core problems. Let’s start with what we actually know, thanks to Social Psychology research, about human attraction. For instance:
- We know that while people will list any number of qualities when describing their ideal mates – intelligence, sense of humor, shared interests, etc. – there is one and only one factor that predicts whether two people will go out on a date: physical attraction.
- We know that there is a tendency for people of similar attractiveness to wind up together. We can see this as we wander around in public, but it has been confirmed by social research.
- We know that less attractive people find other less attractive people more attractive. That is, a 4 is a lot more likely to find another 4 attractive than an 8 would be.
- There is certainly some truth to the assertion that beauty is a social construction, but the effect is probably far less significant than the theory’s proponents imagine. It has been demonstrated in studies with babies that physical attraction is universal and hardwired into us. This study was fascinating – babies responded far more positively to pictures of adults who are regarded as pretty, and they haven’t had a chance to be shaped by social and media constructions of beauty. Additionally, cross-cultural studies show pretty clearly that key elements of beauty are universal – facial symmetry, for example – a finding that undermines social constructivist thinking.
I wish I had the cites for all these studies handy, but it’s been years since I studied Social Psych. However, Dr. Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the Prettiest is an absolute must-read, and it points you to lots of relevant research. I’ve never come across a book that does such a comprehensive job of exploring the subject of human attraction.
The thing is, we also know that these rules get violated. We sometimes see women with men who are noticeably less attractive than they are, right? What the heck? Well, as Etcoff demonstrates, there’s some truth in the stereotype that chicks dig cash. Research illustrates that, for perfectly rational reasons, a man’s financial stability is a factor in his attractiveness. Think evolution. A woman who chooses a mate capable of assuring material well-being for her and her children is assuring that her DNA will be carried forward, isn’t she?
My own online dating experience has me pondering the exceptions to the rules because I seem to be one. I’m contacted fairly often by women on OK Cupid. But – and this is key – it’s almost always by women that I don’t find attractive. (In fact, it just happened again a second ago.) And when I contact women that I do find attractive, I get crickets chirping. Apparently, I’m caught in no-man’s land.
If this is all you know about the situation, you’re likely suspecting that I need to be realistic and stick to women who are in my league. This is not an irrational conclusion, given that data. But there’s a problem with that “in my league” piece.
Let’s start with some ugly facts.
This is me. And if you’re thinking “he’s okay, but nothing special,” then I suspect you’re like most of the women who see my profile. As bad as I hate it, I’m not gorgeous. I’m not bad looking, but neither do I have the sort of face that makes the female pulse skip a beat when I enter a room. If you showed my pic to 100 women and asked them to rate my raw physical attractiveness on a scale of 1-10, I suspect you’d get a lot of 5s, some 4s, maybe a few 6s. Being as objective about this as I can, my best guess is that the final average would be between 5 and 6, probably closer to 5.
This suggests that I have a history of women who are 5s or 6s. But that isn’t the case. My ex-wife was beautiful. The woman I dated before her was a solid 7+. Those who have known me the longest, like my sisters and old friends (Jim Booth, for instance) can testify that I have spent my adult life overachieving on the pretty woman front. There have been a couple 6s (although once you got to know them that number rose), there have been a lot of 7s and 8s, and there have been a few here and there who were showstoppers. I dated a woman named Gina back in the early ’90s and I do not exaggerate when I say that she was hotter than about half of Playboy’s centerfolds.
There’s no telling how many times in my life I have been out in public and somebody has looked at me and wondered how the hell I did it. In fact, knowing how men think, especially, I imagine this has happened hundreds of thousands of times. I’ve sure as hell heard it from friends and family members, who are more than willing to tell you how lucky you are when you show up with a woman whose looks, brains and charm exceed expectations.
Expressed graphically, you would expect the bulk of the women I have been involved with to fall in the middle dark blue range – I’m average, so they should mostly be within one standard deviation. Instead, most have been above that one σ mark.
So when I shoot for a woman who is more attractive than I am – that is, when try and play out of my league – I’m not being unrealistic. I’m doing what I have always done, and done with success. How? Well, I’m guessing that if they were honest, the women who know me best would admit that my face is a 5, but the total package is considerably better. I’m an 8 trapped in a 5 body.
You almost certainly know people like me. You may be people like me. I knew this woman back in Denver. When I met her I’d have said she was a 5, and I wouldn’t have considered asking her out in a million years. Physically she just wasn’t interesting. After knowing her for a few years I found myself hating that we were in the friend zone. (Also, she was a little too young for me.) She had gone from 5 to somewhere above the yes line (you reach a point where the numbers don’t matter anymore – she’s a yes, and that’s all that matters) and it was hard to be around her because I wanted her so badly.
The opposite happens, too. A couple years ago we were auditioning talent for a video production. A woman comes in to read and my heart stopped. Holy crap, she was breathtaking. Three minutes later all I wanted was for her to get out and never cross my path again. Her self-absorption and entitlement filled the room, and it was hard to imagine anyone or anything ever mattering to her as much as her mirror.
Here is where online dating sites fail. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that they’re all built on the assumption that love is a function of raw physical attraction and shared interests. I bitched about that at length in the post I link at the top here. What they do not do, what they cannot do, is to facilitate the way we grow into other people. They can help me tell if she’s a 6 or a 9 at a glance – that is, I can get an idea about her pure physical attractiveness – but there’s no way to assess chemistry. You can sometimes read a profile and get an idea about her depth, and from that you can maybe guess that she might be someone who’d grow on you. But that’s barely educated guesswork and there’s no way you could generate any kind of reliable predictiveness from what’s available in a profile.
There’s no way to communicate this about yourself even if you know it. I can be absolutely certain that a particular woman won’t find me remotely interesting on a first date, and equally certain that after being around me for three months she’d think I was fantastic, but how in the hell do you articulate this in a dating profile? You can’t take a picture of it, there’s no box you can check, and any attempt to build it into your self-description is probably going to sound pathetic. What woman wants to date a guy for three months on the off chance that her first impression might have been wrong?
Whoever can find a way to account for the “he/she will grow on you” factor will put existing dating sites out of business. All those 9s trapped in 6 bodies will flock to the place and your success metrics – how many relationships developed out of your service, how many marriages, etc. – will blow existing service numbers out of the water. I have some ideas about how you might make this hypothetical service work, but it won’t be easy.
Still, I’d like to see it happen. I can guarantee you that if all the women who have seen my profile in the last couple of months and deleted it because I just didn’t compel them somehow had the chance to know me in a context that’s more about depth – because what’s good about me can’t be reflected in an online profile or a five-minute speed dating environment – at least one or two would want to go out with me.
Not only that, but the reverse is true. How many awesome women’s profiles have I seen over the past couple of years and thought, meh? I’d bet my last dollar that I have ignored women who, if I got to know them, I’d be utterly smitten with. But just knowing that is of little use. What am I going to do, make time to date them all for a few months just to see? That isn’t even remotely practical, is it?
There are things about current online dating sites that I’d use in my service, but most of their methodology I’d trash and burn. Perhaps the most important quality in a potentially successful candidate would be that they hate online dating. If you’re convinced that the Matches and eHarmonies of the world can work for you, best of luck, but we’re not for you. Come back when you’ve had enough. Come back when you have figured out their flaws or simply given up because your self-esteem can’t take anymore. Then you’ll perceive our value and then you’ll be willing to invest a bit more in the process, which is going to be essential.
There has to be a better way, and there very well may be. Perhaps someday we’ll find out.