Online dating full of downsides, study shows: What should daters do?

CBS/AP

CBS/AP

(CBS) Are you one of the millions of Americans who use online dating to look for love? A new scientific study of the popular practice shows when it comes to finding a soulmate, you might be better off searching elsewhere.

The study found that online dating is basically a crapshoot when it comes to finding love.

"Online dating is a marvelous addition to the ways in which singles can meet potential romantic partners," study author Dr. Eli Finkel, associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, said in a written statement. But "users need to be aware of its many pitfalls."

For the study, published in Feb. 2 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers analyzed more than 400 studies to find out the real scoop on the billion dollar industry that promises love.

What did they find? All those sites that tout "scientific algorithms" that will help you find love aren't any more effective at predicting whether people are a match than the old fashioned way.

"To date, there is no compelling evidence that any online dating matching algorithm actually works,"Finkel said in the statement. "If dating sites want to claim that their matching algorithm is scientifically valid, they need to adhere to the standards of science, which is something they have uniformly failed to do. In fact, our report concludes that it is unlikely that their algorithms can work, even in principle, given the limitations of the sorts of matching procedures that these sites use."

The authors say current dating algorithms look to predict long-term compatibility by matching personality and attitude traits, but most relationship research suggests that the biggest factors for predicting long-term success are how couples interact and manage conflict. That can't be assessed by any algorithm.

"Eighty years of relationship science has reliably shown you can't predict whether a relationship succeeds based on information about people who are unaware of each other," Finkel told Reuters.

The algorithms were not shared with the researchers since they are property of the dating websites.

"We do recognize an increased desire to better understand how our matching system was created and evidence for its [effectiveness]," a spokesperson from eHarmony told WebMD. "We have plans to provide more visibility into our matching algorithms later this year."

Study co-author Harry T. Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in N.Y., told WebMD that he thinks the sites should share their methodology anyway.

"Imagine if a drug company came out with a new drug and said that it cures depression better than any other drug, but refuses to tell people what's in the drug or how they did the study," Reis said. "Would you believe that claim?"

Besides questions on the validity of the algorithms, Finkel told Reuters that online dating is like shopping at "supermarkets of love," which could backfire and overload people. Previous research shows when people are presented with too many options, they make worse decisions.

That's not to say online dating is a total waste of time. The study found that it provides some benefits, including helping folks who might have a hard time meeting people because of their schedules or if they're new in town.

What should online daters do to increase their chances of finding love?

Reis told WebMD that daters should look at only a handful of people at a time, allowing them to evaluate partners on an individual level, not just how they compare to other potential dates. Don't just look at characteristics people list in their profile, he said, but try to picture yourself going on a vacation with this person.

He also advised daters to keep their online communication short and try to meet in-person quickly, because written words can sometimes take on unrealistic significance.

Finkel told Reuters."There's no better way to figure out whether you're compatible with somebody than talking to them over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer."

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