Sexuality

You Can Find Your Soul Mate Online, But Dating Algorithms Won't Help

Are you looking for your soul mate online? We've got some good news and some bad news. First, the bad news: a new study has confirmed a terrifying truth about online dating sites: matchmaking algorithms don't work. (Researchers have been saying this since at least as far back as 2012.) In fact, the matches offered by algorithms are so inaccurate, you might be better off picking partners at random.

The good news? Despite the ineffectiveness of matchmaking algorithms, online dating can still help you find your soul mate... just not in the way you might expect.

The Evolution Of Online Dating

In the study, researchers analyzed data from participants in a speed dating event who answered more than 100 questions about traits and preferences, similar to the questions you might answer on a dating site like OKCupid or eHarmony. Then, participants met each other on four-minute dates, and were later asked how they rated their level of interest, sexual attraction, and other factors with each potential suitor. The results found that a computer-based algorithm could predict who is desirable and how much someone would desire others — essentially, who's "hot" and who's not — but it could not unravel the mystery of unique desire for a specific person.

Fortunately, online dating has actually evolved in a way that compensates for this lack of accuracy. "The way online dating was before Tinder, there were these 'supermarkets of love' like Match.com, where they didn't claim to have an algorithm, they just said 'come and browse the profiles, everyone, and pick the one who's a good fit for you'," Dr. Eli Finkel, one of the co-authors of the paper, told us on the Curiosity Podcast.

"That was a problem because you can't tell from a profile who's compatible with you," Finkel said. "You might be able to tell who's a little hotter or who's a little less hot, but that's not the relevant question. The relevant question is 'who's compatible with me?' You cannot tell from a profile." This is where algorithms started to come into play.

Next Generation

"The second generation of online dating, eHarmony, said, 'We have the answers, you don't have to shop around, we know who's compatible with you.' That would be fine, except their algorithms are all bunk," Dr. Finkel explained. "There's nobody who's built a legitimate algorithm. So what are we left with? We're left with: online dating can't do anything more than get you face-to-face with someone."

That's something location-based dating apps have done: more than 10 billion matches have been made on Tinder alone, with more than 26 million matches made every day. While this might make a dater feel like he or she is just playing a numbers game, the reality is that location-based apps like Tinder are actually more effective than many other sites have been.

"This is actually why I like Tinder," Finkel said. "And anyone from the 1980s is going to play you the smallest possible violin when you say 'all these dates, I just have millions of people to date,' because that's actually solving a massive problem. The idea that if I want to go on a date tonight, it's not at all hard for me to go on a date tonight, has never before existed in human history. And it is a tremendous privilege to have solved the 'I don't have anybody in my social network to date' problem. That was a dominant problem in humanity up until literally the last decade or two."

What You See Is What You Get

So what's so great about apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and other location-based dating services? They don't pretend. "Tinder doesn't say 'look, browse the profiles, and therefore, when you get across a cup of coffee from someone, she's more likely to be compatible with you.' That's bogus. You can't do it. You can't tell that from some two-dimensional profile," Dr. Finkel said. "And they don't claim that they have some algorithm that's going to find them literally your soul mate. So I admire that Tinder and other GPS-based services say 'look, you're never going to tell who's compatible with you on a web site.'

"How are you going to find who's compatible with you? You're going to sit across a cup of coffee, across a pint of beer, and you're going to have a conversation. And that conversation is going to allow you to get a sense of sexual chemistry, compatible senses of humor... things that you wouldn't be able to detect without being face to face. You always have access to somebody you can go on a date with. And what does it mean to go on a date? It means you try to assess compatibility, which is something nobody has figured out how to do without you actually meeting face to face."

Dr. Finkel even admitted, "I don't know that there is any system I can imagine that can do better than bringing you face to face with somebody and allowing you to success whether you're compatible." So there you have it: swipe away!

To hear more of our conversation with Dr. Finkel, listen to our episode about dating and online relationships on the Curiosity Podcast.

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Written By Cody Gough September 11, 2017