The real problem with online dating

Online dating sucks, especially for a guy like me. There has to be a better way. 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.

Sam Smith

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.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.


    • Video might be a tad better than stills, but as I note in the post, even speed dating, which is five face to face minutes, doesn’t work for me. As much as I hate to say it, I just don’t know that what’s good about me is knowable in this short a time.

    • That said, I DO believe that video is a piece of my hypothetical better system.

      • I would keep the photos, videos and phone conversations for the psychologist/ matchmaker….not to be seen by candidates.
        Doing a video about oneself to out on a dating site really looks and sound like a job interview 🙂

  • Matthew Record

    I had a horrible experience online dating but I’m really fat so that can be difficult.

    I mean, you mention this in your article but you obviously haven’t digested the implications of it – your standards are too physically oriented and you’re being rejected by the exact same metric by which you’re doing your own rejecting.

    You identify the vicious irony of that cycle enough that you can write an entire article about it and you STILL won’t bring yourself to break it, so how can you hope the women you’re contacting will do any different? I can’t imagine they’re putting even half the thought into it you are. Literally the only option you have if your hope is to generate a connection is to start saying yes to at least some of the girls you find unattractive. Attractions developing over time is certainly not rare (and I would say less rare going from the male to the female direction).

    Punching outside your weight class in the looks department is nice but fuck, man, looks fade and at some point you’re two wrinkled old raisins puttering around a condo waiting for the mail. When both you and and your partner’s looks are gone all that’s going to matter is whether they make you feel comforted, whether they lighten your load, make you laugh, laugh at YOUR jokes and can hold a conversation.

  • Sam,

    I must say that Matthew’s comments are RIGHT on target.
    And this illustrates why so many people are frustrated with online dating, including myself.
    I have come to realize that shopping for a man like I would for a second hand handbag is sad, pathetic and immature.
    Matthew is very smart when he points out that you are blaming people ( women ) for acting the same way you do but you keep acting this way, not realizing this is the source of the problem.
    And writing hundreds of lines about physical attraction criteria : this one was a 5, while I always dated 7s or 8s is really terrifying or immature, depending on how you look at it.
    Yes, We are all stimulated by attraction : a pretty person, an elegantly decorated restaurant,
    A beautiful landscape but for God’s sake, attractiveness can’t be reduced to what someone shows in a few online photos !
    What about a person’s aura, charisma, wit, sensitive or smart personnality ?
    This is part of attraction as a whole and one of the issues of online dating is that all this does not appear when browsing profile…. it only unfolds after getting to REALLY know someone.
    And spend TIME with that person, which is NOT what online dating promotes : everything must happen quickly and everyone’s expectations are unrealistic.
    I am just surprised by your whole post.
    I have been reading many of your comments about many topics and came to the conclusion that your high caliber smartness and the way you write were making you ( at least for me ) someone attractive ( when in fact I would prefer to go out with a man without an earring and a beard, and who dresses a bit more elegantly…. see, we all have our silly basic expectations about what attractiveness is 😉 ).
    I think about this guy I met while I was walking to my building with a girlfriend a few months ago. He was bold, in his late 40s I guess, quite a few frakles on the face and speaking a bit loud for me.
    My friend knew him well, so they started speaking. I was mostly there, listening to their conversation. And something wonderful happened after 15/20 mns : I thought ; ” If I had seen a photo of this guy on a website profile, I would have not even stopped to read it for a second, whereas I Am witnessing myself thinking that in fact, this man sounds super smart, sharp, is incredibly charming and funny.”
    And he became attractive to me.
    Too bad, at the end of their conversation, he announced he was getting married a few months later LOL
    Bottom line : if you really want to stuck to this narrow minded, marketing driven online world, show photos of you where you smile, look happy ( which is not the case in this photo ), take a photo of you where you are wearing a white or black or olive green Prada design type of shirt, remove your earring and shave your beard…otherwise, if you think ” No way, this is not who I am”, then apply this thinking process to the types of women you decide to reply to. By giving them a chance, you will be giving YOURSELF a chance.
    Then, if you do not want to try this route, just drop online dating and try to meet a like minded person in the real physical world, someone who will find you attractive and interesting after having spent time with you instead of looking at your online photos for 3.5 seconds…and vice versa.
    And by the way, I think free online sites are crap and I am a true believer that people who really want to invest time and attention in their personal life should pay more than $50 a month to join a good quality website.
    Good luck to you.
    All the best,

    • Matt and Arielle, you have sort of seized on the physical attraction thing and taken what I’m saying the wrong way. I was afraid people might do this, and some others did the same on my fb page. Let me try and clarify a bit.

      First, whether you like it or not, whether I like it or not, whether anybody likes it or not, physical attraction is a real thing. However, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Imagine that we all have a physical attraction level and a REAL attraction level. These May or may not be the same. As I suggest, a lot of people are more attractive than their looks. I’m one of them. I use the old number system not because it’s the best way of seeing other human beings, but because we’re talking about large, collective issues and we need a way of abstracting. If there is a bett way of discussion these very real considerations please let me know.

      Now, am I obsessed with looks? Yes, but not in there way you’re thinking. I’m obsessed with them because the online dating system stresses them in ways that keep women from giving me a shot. And because the system is what it is, I’m trying to guess about a woman’s REAL attractiveness based on data that only shows me the superficial. You’re both criticizing me for being shallow when the exact opposite is true. This isn’t about me insisting on a supermodel. It’s about me wanting to find the right person, who may be mo physically attractive or less. The woman that I blew it’d with a bunch of years ago, THE one, the one I’d kill to have another shot at, is not by far the prettiest woman I’ve dated and the single sexist female I ever met was among the least physically attractive.

      What I want is a system that helps us all get past the obsession with raw looks. I want a system that helps us find our way to the deeper beauty, to the substance that drives genuine love and end bring relationships. I want a system that works more like real life does. I want it for me, and I want it for every wonderful man and woman out there who isn’t getting a fair shot right now because of how they look.

      • Sam,

        I did not mean to offend you…
        If you would like to find a system that goes beyond basic attractiveness, then I believe in real life random situations, where spontaneity, mystery and time have some significance.
        Online dating pushes people to be way too basic and immature, most of us looking for a product instead of a real human beings with his/her assets and weaknesses.
        If you are envisionning a new or better system, I would suggest a dating service that involves fine psychologists who would be spending time on the phone and via vispdeos with candidates ( who pay a year membership….looking for a quick fix or mate in 1 month or 2 is not the right way to approach it ). Smart psychologists would try to know the candidates they chat with by asking questions more interesting then what kind of hobbies do you have ?
        Then they would be in charge of trying to find the best matches.
        No photos of men nor women would be shown…. If you get out of the whole online photo shopping thing, then you deal with people who are willing to take the risk to get to know so done they have out in a box first….Real attraction comes as a whole : figure, face, natural smell, smiles or lack of, aura, personnality, the way someone walks and moves, the style, the values etc….Just focusing on the basic looks is a recipe for failure.
        Looks fade as well as sex does.
        Common values and personality compatibility do last longer and they can definitely be part of the whole concept of attraction.
        At least, this is how I see it.

      • I’ll reply later, but you certainly didn’t offend me. I appreciate your comments and agree with just about everything you’ve said.

    • Also, my dating profile leads with a shot of me smiling broadly and also includes a couple other professionally done shots with me dressed quite nicely.

      I’m wrestling with the fact that so many people are taking me to be saying the very opposite of what I’m saying. People who agree with me completely keep acting like we’re in violent disagreement.

    • Normally, I agree with most of what Arielle post but I read this article and didn’t take it the way she did. I still find you somewhat attractive (even though I would normally choose a man without an earring). I don’t mind the fact the you aren’t smiling. I like the picture and your beard. I have to find someone somewhat physically attractive or I’m never going to want to kiss them. Looks are important to some women also. Sam never said that a women had to be beautiful for him to want to date.

      • M,

        I’m certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, no matter how well you get to know me. 🙂

        As for the beard, I would actually love to get rid of it, but my chin isn’t as sudoku as I’d like and the goatee is camouflage. Read Etcoff and you’ll see where my thinking here comes from.

        Matt and Arielle – I’d appreciate it if you guys would stay tuned for more. This is a subject I care about and this won’t be the last time I post about it. I’m bothered by the fact that so many people are investing in a system that not only doesn’t work for them, it winds up making things worse. As I get me mind into a problem, it’s helpful to have people giving me feedback and bouncing ideas around. Otherwise I can get tunnel visioned.

      • This is how I saw the article. A (person with a) very intelligent, logical, analytical mind analyzing a problem (online dating). I guess there were a lot of numbers in there regarding women’s physical appearance but I wasn’t offended by that when I read it. I guess those of us that are logical and analytical can sometimes seem cold to those that are not. But, I have read enough of the stuff you have written to say that I’m pretty sure you aren’t shallow. One of my main problems with online dating is exactly what Sam sated above. I’m contacted fairly often but almost always by men that I do not find attractive (at all). And when I contact men I find attractive they rarely respond. I met less than 10 men that way but most of them were so far below what I’m looking for as far as what I would consider a “nice man” that it really turned me off online dating. They were dishonest, not kind or empathic. They lied about their age, didn’t show up for dates, looked much older than their pictures, lied about having a criminal record, and were rude. One was honest and we are still friends. Do you know how long it takes to find out if each one is telling the truth about themselves? And effort. If I hadn’t done some online research (like checking circuit court records), I would not have found out most of them were lying. It was exhausting. And then later I found out 30% of the people using online dating sites for singles were already married. I believed there were nice men out there before online dating. Now, I’m not so sure.

  • Why I am THE luckiest guy in the world:

    1. Against all odds, I found the most amazing person I have ever known. Literally tripped into it. No skill. All luck.
    2. Part of her being amazing is that she puts up with me. Win-win.
    3. We found each other well before online dating was even around. Otherwise, I’d be in much worse shape than you are, I’m sure.

    It is horribly unfair to you that you’re in the position you’re in and that the “solutions” of the day are not working. And, yes, that means there are thousands and thousands of similar situations. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. Some people I know here are actually using a matchmaker service. That sounds terrifying to me. But I might try the same thing if put in a similar circumstance.

    If I come up with an actual good idea, I will share it. Promise.

  • Sam,
    Perhaps the best site would be one without pictures, without videos, but with the real content. Audio recordings or ways to talk without the external being so much of the initial decisioning process. A site that allows people to discuss their beliefs, their desires, their families (believe me being able to deal with the families of people you love are paramount in long-term relationships) and their real problems and their real desires. I fear too much of what is put on dating sites (although not familiar with them myself) describe the way we want other people to see us – not the way we really are.
    For instance, I’m no genius but nor am I stupid; I’m no beauty queen and believe in aging gracefully – even if that means a few extra pounds or wrinkles (a real triumph for me because of how I’ve been viewed and treated all my life); I’m an introvert who needs time to re-generate and re-charge in silence; I have deep-seated issues with self-confidence; I have been burned more times than I can even begin to innumerate by being too trusting and wanting to be liked by everyone. I spent most of my life being what everyone else expected me to be instead of who I am and I’ve suffered painful losses by making the decision to change that. Being honest about our faults – perhaps even putting them on the table first – helps us accept the clay feet of others.
    I suppose these sites ask all sorts of questions that are supposed to indicate your compatibility with another person. If they are like most psychological testing having participated in one or more helps people ‘game’ the system.
    Just as Matthew said health and external attractiveness ebbs and flows throughout our lives, It is the spark within that, when met with a similar spark in another, can fan flames into passion, love , commitment, compassion, joy, and acceptance.
    I’ll admit I am extremely lucky…..I was rejoined with the love of my life after 30 long years and he’s well ‘above my pay grade’. But we are happy above all compare, in a great part, because we don’t ignore our shortcomings. We accept them but never cease to remind each other about the good characteristics we offer.
    There’s a real world out there in which you may find more appealing people than those on dating sites. Being comfortable with Sam first, flaws and all, and having a tempered confidence may get you farther in relationships than anything else has done so far.

  • Dude, just get a hairpiece. That’ll fix it.

    Seriously, I’m probably a below average guy who certainly married up (21 years now). When my wife posted a picture of us on FB an older elegant friend of hers said, “I hope he realizes what a lucky guy he is.” Kind of a backhanded compliment, but I do realize it.

    And I had lots of dates in college. I’m not the kind of guy that could ever pick up a girl (seriously, never once), but being around them in college activities allowed several to get to know me a little and interest them enough for at least a date or two.

    You need to get involved in some community service or something (I’d suggest a church, but I doubt that interests you, nor possibly the women you’d meet there). But get into something that gets you around the same people for an extended time. Not that I really know what I’m talking about.

  • I think the discussion here wandered away a bit. Yes, Sammy is superficial, but we all are. We are all 5’s wanting to date 8’s, or 8’s wanting to date 10’s, or whatever. That’s not the problem.

    One problem is that photos aren’t perfect measures of attraction. In Sam’s case, he’s actually physically imposing, which I’d guess suggests physical attractiveness is more than just facial, and hard to convey in two dimensions. We’ve all met people we couldn’t take our eyes off in person who’s photo wasn’t that compelling and vice versa, perfect pictures who were flat in person. (Or as some writer said, “whose features were so smooth that your eyes slid right off.”)

    The bigger problem is that we all initially judge attractiveness based on appearance, but we later modify that score based on (1) time and (2) what we see/hear/observe about the person. 35 years ago I tried to hit on a very pretty girl in class, but she had a boyfriend and so I found myself talking to her friend (also very pretty, but then I’m biased now) and now, two children, one grandchild, four dogs, six cats, and twenty countries later, here we are. But if it were an online environment that would never have happened.

    I’ve always known that intuitively, but I’ve never stopped to analyze it. I am a 4 at best, but back in the day my friends used to joke that if I could get in a real conversation with a woman, then I’d always get laid. “Uh oh, she’s talking to him.” I avoided the 70’s bar scene probably because subconciously I knew I had no chance of bridging that gap in that environment.

    So the answer can’t be “people shouldn’t be so superficial,” because we are. It might be “people shouldn’t use online dating,” but probably isn’t because they will. My son has used online dating semi successfully (he’s met lots of girls and gone out with them, but then he’s a handsome athlete with blond hair and a chin) but he hasn’t met his life partner yet.

    People who use online dating aren’t stupid or vapid or people who enjoy rejection. They do it because they haven’t found a better way. I’d posit that for most people a better way doesn’t exist. Having your friends fix you up is no less painful. Even traditional avenues like clubs and church don’t seem to work (or Christianmingle wouldn’t exist.)

    The solution, if one exists, needs to be one that allows additional information to enter the equation. Maybe the answer is an intermediary. Maybe it’s some sort of elaborate testing/scoring match followed by a set number or exchanges then followed by a photo exchange.

  • This is an interesting analysis (with interesting in-depth comments to go with it). I’m an online dating coach, and I always struggled with the physical dating world in a similar way—I’m a higher number than I initially present as, at least I was back then. (I think we’re one of the few marriages where both of us got hotter with time, not less hot, haha.)

    It kind of fascinates me how much time you’ve spent analyzing online dating behavior, and using that analysis to write posts instead of change your approach. Changing your input is by far the most effective way to change your output! (And you could always include a permalink to your profile!)

    If you’re able to communicate charmingly and intelligently and succinctly, you can usually overcome any perceived handicaps such as your general attractiveness number (which I think is way too broad but we’ll leave that alone for now), or your body type, or height, or baldness, or whatever.

    I don’t think video works, and I think speed dating is not inefficient because it allows too little time, but more because it’s too awkward a setup. I actually do think online dating works (OK I know it does) when used well, but that’s the key—your usage isn’t working well, so you have to decide to change your approach. Call me when you’re ready to do this, for real! You may not realize the little tics and tells you have that come off very differently than your actual personality. (Just like how some of your writing painted a shallow attractiveness-obsessed picture for some readers, when that wasn’t what you meant, ya know?)

  • Pingback: Online dating: the physical attraction problem | Progressive Culture | Scholars and Rogues

  • Pingback: Dating Online: Advice for Men – How to completely mess up the First Date | julietjeske

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