Online Dating: Where Technology and Evolution Collide

June 26, 2008 by Lisa Zyga, feature
Online Dating: Where Technology and Evolution Collide

When searching for a soul mate, you might think that the more options, the better. But the rise of technology – notably, the Internet – has thrown a wedge in that perception.

The Internet offers us an abundance of options when selecting everything from bicycles to mates that is unprecedented in human history. Although we may think that the extra options are good, new research has shown that we may be more satisfied when choosing from fewer options – and we may not even be cognitively equipped to correct this misconception.

Throughout most of human history, we’ve had significantly fewer options for choosing a mate, and so we would strongly welcome any additional options when they came along. For instance, when our neocortex was developing, in part to deal with social networks, the average human group consisted of roughly 150 individuals. Healthy group members of reproductive age of the opposite sex would total about 35 – slim pickings, by the Internet’s standards.

Because we developed in this kind of social environment, we have a tendency to desire ever more options. That’s why, for example, people are enticed by dating Web site’s offer of “millions of possibilities.” But, as a team of researchers has shown in a recent study, this abundance of options may not make the chooser feel or choose any better than a pool of just a half dozen or so options. Psychologist Alison Lenton from the University of Edinburgh, Barbara Fasolo from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and cognitive scientist Peter Todd from Indiana University have presented their findings on this subject in a recent issue of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.

As the researchers explain, people tend to anticipate that they’ll feel better about “shopping for a mate” when there is a large number of options. However, in actuality, people feel equally good when faced with few as opposed to many options. The scientists performed two experiments demonstrating this clash between anticipation and experience.

In their first experiment, the researchers asked 88 participants (with an average age of 22) what they thought was the ideal number of potential mates to choose from, with a range between 1 and 5,000 options. Participants judged each set (very small to very large) of potential mates on four criteria: expected difficulty of making a selection, anticipated satisfaction with their decision, anticipated regret after making their decision, and expected enjoyment of the selection process.

On average, participants predicted that they would be overall most satisfied when selecting from about 20-50 possible mates. So, in the second experiment, the researchers investigated how satisfied people were when choosing a mate from this range compared with the less favored fewer options. Interestingly, they found that participants who chose from 20 personal profiles had roughly similar experiences compared with participants who had to pick from just four profiles. Also, participants’ actual experiences when faced with four options were significantly better than anticipated.

As the researchers summarized, “the expected preference for the larger set-size in terms of more enjoyment and satisfaction and less regret did not materialize.” Instead, there is a significant mismatch between what people think they will feel and what they actually feel, the team concluded.

Misjudgment of an optimal number of options has been observed in several other situations besides choosing a mate. Generally, the greatest disadvantages when having more options include being more frustrated by the complexity of the selection process, sometimes not making a selection at all, and experiencing decreased satisfaction and increased regret after making a selection. (When you’re faced with a million possibilities, you have a much smaller chance of picking the “right” one than if you had to pick from just four.)

The study also offers suggestive evidence that people aren’t paying very close attention to all of the various information provided in the profiles when they have many profiles to sift through and, thus, they might be missing out on interesting/suitable potential mates in this choice context.

“The information overload result was well known to consumer researchers since the ‘70s,” Fasolo told “But the context was always consumer – a bit artificial and more 'novel' in an evolutionary sense. It was not at all obvious that the same result would occur in the more naturalistic context of mate choice. True, we are examining a more modern mate choice world – not sequential encounters in the jungle, but simultaneous fast-paced encounters with men zooming from one café table to the next – to which humans are relatively less accustomed (though lekking animals are). So, all in all, I would say that the fact that greater variety backfired even in the context of mate choice was non-obvious.”

Researchers have previously tried to explain our misjudgment of option number in evolutionary terms. At the time our brains were evolving to deal with making decisions, humans rarely had too many options to deal with. Therefore, we’re not adapted to deal with the excessive numbers of choices available today. The Internet, which has no physical space limitations, presents us with a problem that never existed for our ancestors. (As the researchers note, about 1% of the 600,000,000 people who use the Internet visit online dating sites.)

After millions of years of seeking more variety under conditions where variety was relatively limited, it may be very difficult to persuade people that more isn’t always better. For one thing, people may not have a point of comparison where they can experience the benefits of fewer options. Also, recognition of the disadvantages may not come until much later on.

Further, even if we do learn from our experiences, it may not matter much. Research has shown that people’s expectations, rather than previous actual experiences, play a larger role in determining whether they will participate in the same event in the future.

In light of these findings, the researchers suggest that Web designers of online dating sites consider this contrast and try to appease people’s desire for more options while making it easier to narrow down large sets. Currently, some sites do the opposite: when a search results yields fewer than 50 (or more, in some cases) profiles, the site encourages users to broaden their search criteria. Instead, the researchers encourage developers to keep in mind that they must balance people’s desire for more choices with the knowledge that giving people such choices may lead them to evaluate potential mates in a more superficial way.

“I find it interesting (and a bit worrying) that the underestimation of the costs of too much choice which we (and other consumer researchers alike) find plagues not just the daters, but the designers of dating Web sites,” Fasolo said. “If we want people to make sensible choices, researchers need to 'nudge' (to say it with Thaler and Sunstein) dating Web site designers towards simpler and more manageable Web sites.”

More information: Lenton, Alison P.; Fasolo, Barbara; and Todd, Peter M. “’Shopping’ for a Mate: Expected versus Experienced Preferences in Online Mate Choice.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol. 51, No. 2, June 2008.

Copyright 2008
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2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 26, 2008
So their satisfaction was judged after they just picked the profile they liked most without even contacting that person??
What a useless experiment, they should have been followed through real selection until they form relationships (or at least try 10 partners) and then tested. Of course it would require much more time and effort but at least the results would be meaningful.
4 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2008
And what about those people who search profile sites with no intention of forming a relationship or even serious dating, but want only sexual encounters? For those people, larger numbers are what they want. The research didn't address that, despite its commonality. The mention of lekking animals was interesting. Profiles could be looked at as lekking by computer!
2 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2008
Yes but keep in mind that the primary benefit from having many potential dates to choose from is that you have a higher chance of succeeding!

For example:
Lets assume you on average find 5% percent of potential partners attractive and that there is a 10% chance that contacted person will also be interested in relationship.
Now lets compare two sets: one has 50 partners and the other has 500.
So you can find about 3 attractive people in one set and 25 in the other.
So far so good you found an attractive partner so you are happy - both sets give comparable satisfaction and this is what this research showed.

However now you start contacting the people you find attractive and to your horror it turns out that the people you picked don't find you attractive, already found someone, or whatever.
In reality with only 3 potential dates and 10% chance of succeeding your chances of making a successful relationship are pretty low, on the other hand 25 choices give you a decent safe margin and although it might take time you should form a relationship.

So the experiment to be properly conducted has to take into account the reality of forming relationships its not a simple market study where a customer selects the product and thats that.

It is fairly obvious that in online dating the more choices you have the better (there are limits but certainly nowhere near this article puts them), besides the more picky you are and less attractive the more important it gets.
3 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2008
Nice statistical analysis for finding mates huh?
Utter bullshit if you ask me, but you probably won't ask me :-)

...expected enjoyment of the selection process....

THAT.... I can fully agree with!

But most people apparently measure success with the end result of being glued to a single partner after going thruogh that pleasurable selection proces. It is indeed very questionable if that was the initial goal.

I rather would measure success in the success of this enjoyable selection process itself.

As my father teached me - and he was a very wise man (he still is) - "son...accept 9/10 hard hits in your face and you got at least one in the sack." Of course ... this is for beginners as I also was when my father explained about the birds and the bees, but of course... exercise gives knowledge and the success rate has largely improved over the last years :-)

Now.. I get hit in the face only 1/10 instead of being hit 9/10 times :-)

btw: am i paying these fucking researchers?

Na, na na na na ...
not rated yet Jun 27, 2008
Well I certainly believe that technology collides with evolution but that doesn't mean that such a bad study should be treated seriously.

When humans were living in small groups it was much easier to form relationships cause we tend to measure our expectations against our environment. Attractiveness is to a large extent (maybe even completely) relative - you tend to desire the most attractive person you have met. That was fine at a time when humans lived in small groups and would meet 200 or maybe 1000 potential mates before they made a choice.

Now however we have TV, internet, magazines, movies etc which constantly expose us to the finest specimens of human race and if that wasn't enough they are often artificially made even more appealing. All to make us sit in front of that TV or screen watch those adds and spend our bucks.

All that of course leads to very high expectations when it comes to potential partners as our instincts cant tell between reality and TV. It results in huge relationship problems and unhappiness on a massive scale.
Yes I know all that and I do believe its a serious problem.

However even though the scientists might want to do the right thing and have good faith bad science is still bad science. Their experiment is laughable at best and we can't just accept conclusions drawn from wrong assumptions cause their authors are trying to do a good thing.

Finally the damage is already done our expectations are what they are and its not dating sites who are to blame but movies, TV and fashion industry among others. If any dating site was to limit offered choices users would simply leave.
With our high expectations we have to have a lot potential partners to choose from.

Bad science is still bad science even if the goal is righteous.
3.5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2008
Hey superhuman,

It seems to me that you are describing your own relationship and that your wife is just the best looking in a neighbourhod of unbelievable ugly bitches.... whatever... Einstein understood relativity and I guess... so do you.

My wife has no problem with that TV thing, cuz since my expectations were raised skyhigh... she buys better lingerie and sometimes I buy it for her.

advice: watch a good porn movie together with your relatively beautiful wife and turn her into some kinda pornstar and get your expectations met. She would love you being honest about her relativity for a while, really! So... be honest mister.

not rated yet Jun 27, 2008
No, it is bad science cause they say their experiment shows less choice is better when *looking for a partner* online,
when in fact their experiment only shows that less choice is as good when *choosing a web profile you like* from a set.

I already explained why *looking for a partner* is a not the same as *choosing a web profile you like*.


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