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Online dating can work for some: Longer-term success of the relationships remains an unknown

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Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:34 pm

FAIRBANKS — “Sarah,” a friend of mine in her 60s, signed up on e-Harmony, a popular online dating service, to find a romantic relationship. 

Sarah is just the type of person that on-line dating can help, according to psychologist Eli Finkel and his colleagues. They reviewed all the research on online dating and the Association for Psychological Science just published their findings in a new report.

Sarah is a great candidate for online dating because she 1) lives in a small Alaska town and is geographically isolated from possible mates, 2) lacks friends who could arrange introductions since her friends are mostly women in the same boat, and 3) can’t find potential men in the workplace because she is retired. 

When Sarah got a long list of men from e-Harmony, she was unable to write to them, even though two or three looked promising. Maybe they were “creeps.”

Is Sarah passing up good opportunities? Yes, the researchers say. 

Online dating has become the second best way of finding romantic partners and is fast overcoming the traditional primary source, “friends and family.” 

Online dating services have responded to the fears of women like Sarah. Some sites refuse to post the profiles of anyone showing up on the register of sex offenders. 

Some even screen people for “neuroticism,” a personality trait that leads to difficult relationships and divorce. 

Online dating has another big advantage. You can get to know prospects by email and video chatting before deciding to meet face-to-face. 

Just don’t let too much time pass before that face-to-face meeting, Finkel advises. People who waited six weeks, instead of three weeks, to meet each other tended to develop high expectations and end up disappointed.

But online dating has one very serious problems. You can’t tell through on-line communication whether you will feel that romantic spark.

Online dating turns traditional dating upside down. When you meet someone at work, for example, you have a good sense as to whether you like the person and the relationship might work out. 

Then you gradually find out about the person’s interests and personality. You may find out that the kind of characteristics highlighted on online dating sites, like similar tastes in music and movies, don’t matter much.

A second problem is that people often misrepresent themselves. 

In one study, researchers used a tape measure, scale and age on driver’s licenses to see how often people matched the profiles they set up. Eighty-one percent of online daters set up profiles with inaccurate information. Men lie about their height and women about their weight. 

People misrepresent themselves in real-world dating, too, but at least they can’t put up their high school picture when they look altogether different now. 

A third problem of online dating is that having so many choices makes it hard to pick well. People got fatigued from all that shopping.   

This is how Sarah reacted. She got so many choices that she felt overwhelmed and didn’t do anything at all. 

The big question is whether on-line dating does succeed in helping people find romantic partners and creating marriages.

We know nothing whatsoever about their success, conclude the researchers. 

Dating services brag about their number of successful matches, but these numbers come from in-house studies. They won’t give these studies to independent researchers and won’t give out their “secret formula” for matching so researchers could test them.  

What does the research suggest that Sarah should do? Use the dating service, be open-minded and email interesting partners even if you don’t share lots of common characteristics. Instead of constant shopping, imagine what a relationship with any particular person would be like. And don’t wait too long for meeting face-to-face.  

Just don’t expect too much. The success of these services is unproved.

Judith Kleinfeld is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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