Are Match-Based Online Dating Sites Bullshit?

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As I discuss in Find The Love of Your Life Online and Changing Your Game, there are basically three kinds of online dating sites: general sites like Match, niche sites like JDate, and match-based sites like eHarmony. Match-based sites – eHarmony especially – make strong claims that their matching system helps the online dating process by pairing you with those who are compatible with you, thus increasing your odds of finding a good long-term match.

eHarmony requires members to fill out a 300-item questionnaire, the results of which are used to match members to other members. The matching process is accomplished using a matching algorithm that was developed based on a lot of research on married couples. eHarmony has even patented the algorithm. Here is some copy from the eHarmony website:

“eHarmony is the first service within the online dating industry to use a scientific approach to matching highly compatible singles. eHarmony’s matching is based on using its 29 DIMENSIONS® model to match couples based on features of compatibility found in thousands of successful relationships.”

“After extensive research involving thousands of married couples, Dr. Warren confirmed that these dimensions were indeed highly predictive of relationship success and could be used to match singles. Ten years later, eHarmony’s compatibility matching is responsible for nearly 5% of U.S. marriages.”

In other words, eHarmony claims their methods are scientific, and that they work. And it was only a matter of time before someone in the scientific community decided to question this claim as well as similar claims from sites like Chemistry and PerfectMatch. Earlier this year, that happened: a paper was published that challenged these claims, and this news spread to big news sites like the New York Times.

So let’s look at this: do match-sites like eHarmony work, or are they bullshit?

First of all, this is a huge topic, worthy of multiple articles. Today, let’s start with the basics: the paper and its criticisms of eHarmony. The paper itself is extremely long, but here it is if you want to peruse. To cut to the chase, the paper acknowledges the usefulness of online dating sites, but calls into question the validity of matching algorithms. They conclude that:

“Regarding matching, no compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work— that they foster romantic outcomes that are superior to those fostered by other means of pairing partners. Part of the problem is that matching sites build their mathematical algorithms around principles—typically similarity but also complementarity—that are much less important to relationship well-being than has long been assumed. In addition, these sites are in a poor position to know how the two partners will grow and mature over time, what life circumstances they will confront and coping responses they will exhibit in the future, and how the dynamics of their interaction will ultimately promote or undermine romantic attraction and long-term relationship well-being. As such, it is unlikely that any matching algorithm that seeks to match two people based on information available before they are aware of each other can account for more than a very small proportion of the variance in long-term romantic outcomes, such as relationship satisfaction and stability.”

In other words, the scientists call into question the principles the algorithms are based on as well as the algorithm’s ability to predict long term relationship success.

So, as someone with a foot in each camp, I will offer my take. On the one hand, match-based online dating sites like eHarmony do make big claims. Why? They’re businesses trying to make money. The difficulty here is that nobody can ever really empirically test a matching algorithm like eHarmony’s because they’re a private company – their algorithms are proprietary and they don’t have to share their “secret sauce.” They can make all the claims they want to, but there will never be solid, unbiased empirical proof the thing works.

On the other hand, the scientists are making pretty strong claims themselves – they’re stating that the matching algorithms probably don’t work, without much solid evidence of their own. When I read their article in Scientific American, they sound more like skeptics than scientists, like they’re simply reacting to eHarmony’s audacious claims rather than presenting refuting evidence. And while they’re completely correct in questioning eHarmony’s claims, they’ve only provided arguments for why the algorithms won’t work, not actually shown that they don’t.

Overall, it would be a mistake to place too much stock into any matching algorithm. But it would also be a mistake to automatically discount them. There’s not enough evidence to support either claim. The benefits of match-based sites are that they attract people who are serious about finding someone (a reason in itself to try one, as people looking for hook-ups won’t go to all that trouble and expense), and they offer an opportunity to meet people who are more likely to share your values and complement your personality. Does that guarantee you’ll hit it off and stay happy forever? Of course not. But there’s nothing in the world that can guarantee that.

As I’ve discussed in my books, my philosophy is: try different sites and see what yields success. Personally, in my brief stint on eHarmony, I met only two men in person, but found them both impressive and well-matched to me in many important ways.

I’d like to hear from you: even if the people you met on a match-based site weren’t for you, did they seem more like “your people” in terms of personality, lifestyle, or values?

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