iLoveYou, iLoveYouNot: The Psychology of Online Dating & Romantic Relationships

When I first saw the movie "You’ve Got Mail” at the ripe old age of 8, the idea of developing a relationship through online chatrooms seemed novel, unconventional and even…creepy? Fast-forward 15 years later, where one in ten people are using an online dating website, and much of the stigma associated with this activity has declined. Since 2005, the proportion of Internet users agreeing that "online dating is a good way to meet people" has increased from 44 to 59%, and 41% of college graduates report knowing someone who has met a long-term partner through online dating1.  As more and more dating websites continue to crop up, from OkCupid to Veggie Date (yes, a dating website for vegetarians), online dating has become a common and convenient way for singles to meet and pursue relationships. Is online dating really that different from offline dating? Is one “better” than the other? Recently, social psychologists who study the development of romantic relationships have begun to explore the phenomenon of online dating, specifically examining the extent to which it does or doesn’t mirror “traditional” dating2.  In the specific study that I'll summarize here, researchers reviewed existing dating websites with the goal of identifying ways that online dating is similar to and different from romantic relationship initiation in offline contexts.

There are a few fundamental ways the Internet has changed the dating scene. For one, the majority of dating websites implement matchmaking algorithms (though, there is not much evidence to support their accuracy ). Rather than relying on word from a friend of a friend ("you guys would be PERFECT for each other"), users often let the formula do the work. Online daters also have extensive personal information at their fingertips. Before even online chatting with potential matches, users typically know something about their appearance, personality, and job. On certain websites, users have the option of providing even more personal information, such as whether or not they want children, how frequently they bathe/shower, and even if they like to cuddle  Finally, in contrast to conventional dating where both parties first meet in person, online dating situates the first conversation in cyberspace, where users usually online chat before arranging their first meetup. Once online daters finally meet in person, relationship processes appear very similar to traditional forms of dating, though there has been little research examining if subsequent relationship maintenance varies depending on its origin (e.g., online vs. offline).

Does online dating offer any unique benefits? The answer seems to be yes and no. Dating websites offer users new levels of access to potential partners, a perk that may be especially advantageous for those with uncertainty about, for example, approaching a stranger in a bar. Similarly, for individuals that struggle to meet potential partners due to geographic location, work schedule, or other obstacles, the accessible nature of the Internet makes this process much easier online. Online dating also offers promise for bringing similar individuals together, especially niche websites intended for people with the same religious background, interests, or career. Finally, through online dating, individuals  can use both user profiles and online chatting to gauge compatibility with others before the first rendez-vous.

However, this is not to say online dating is without its drawbacks. Anyone who has ever sat through one of the more grimace-inducing episodes of MTV's Catfish can attest to the dangers of online relationships-gone-wrong. Though "catfishing" represents an extreme example of the risks, online relationship formation can present some negatives. Although the opportunity to select from thousands of profiles is often a plus of online dating, sometimes less is more. There is evidence that having access to such a wide selection of potential partners can at times transform dating into an evaluative process. As the authors state, online profiles "reduce three-dimensional people to two-dimensional displays of information"; as such, online profiles cannot capture some of the experiential elements of an in-person meetup. In a similar vein, excessive profile browsing can turn into what has been termed, "relationshopping" 3. If users start to commoditize their potential partners, they may become less willing to commit to one particular person.

The  research summarized here suggests that online dating has changed the landscape of romantic relationships, at least when it comes to the early stages of dating. Online dating also offers some unique benefits, such as increased opportunities for finding compatible partners. However, there is also evidence that certain experiential elements of conventional dating are definitively lacking in online environments, and that the development of accurate matchmaking algorithms has a long way to go. As the pace of technological change continues to quicken, only time will tell how the development of romantic relationships will progress. Emerging scientific evidence from psychology and other domains, like the research discussed here, may help to enhance the effectiveness of online dating websites and the way that users approach these sorts of relationships. Perhaps in another 15 years we'll have a new blog post about the risks and benefits of dating your phone's operating system.

References

1 Pew Research Center, 2013: Full Article

2Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis, & Sprecher, 2012: Full Article

3Heino, Ellison, & Gibbs, 2010:Full Article