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Online Dating Magazine > Features > Compatibility Testing

The Truth About Compatibility Testing
by James Houran, Ph.D.

Personality and compatibility tests – they’re the latest trend among online dating and relationship sites. Compatibility testing refers to a method of pairing unfamiliar people for long-term, romantic relationships. These pairings of couples from a pool of eligible singles are typically based on some combination of physical and social demographics and personality profiling. This type of compatibility testing and assessment varies from and is arguably more difficult than in-person programs or workshops like “PREPARE and ENRICH,” which assess existing couples on the critical tasks related to early marital adjustment.

After developing and publishing various forms of compatibility tests and academically reviewing the tests of others, I’ve established myself as an expert in the field. Indeed, both the dating industry and the academic community recognize my expertise. Unfortunately, I get the impression that many online dating services don’t want the consumers to be so informed on the subject. You see, compatibility testing done well is a powerful tool. But, compatibility testing done wrong is a powerful way to hurt your chances for finding lasting love. Let me reiterate – compatibility testing done right works for you; compatibility testing done wrong works against you. In this article, I’ll outline what you need to know in order to answer two important questions:

1) Should you use a compatibility test?

2) How can you tell if a particular compatibility test is legitimate?


Compatibility Testing: Old Wine in New Bottles
It might interest you to know that “automated” matchmaking is hardly new. In fact, it was alive and kicking well before the antediluvian TV show “Law & Order” was on the air. Structured or formalized compatibility testing is arguably rooted in or at least inspired by St. Valentine’s Day, which in turn has its origins in ancient Rome. February marked the beginning of spring and a time of purification. Ancient Romans celebrated a fertility festival, Lupercalia, commencing February 15th. Young women practiced the ritual of placing their names in an urn from which bachelors would select the year’s companion. Often these pairings resulted in marriage. Later, in 498 A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day, and the Roman lottery system – frowned upon as an un-Christian practice – became outlawed.

Of course, "outlawed" doesn’t mean "obsolete." Cultural anthropologists have well documented the historic practice of arranged marriages across our globe since Roman times. It may sound odd to think of arranged marriages as compatibility testing, but it does make some sense when you think about it. Arranged marriages were about economic security and political solidarity between families. As such, parents were careful to arrange marriages between couples that met certain economic, geographic, and demographic criteria. To their way of thinking, those were the most salient elements for a “compatible” relationship. Even in contemporary Western cultures where we emphasize love and emotional security over economic security, we still factor in variables such as income and education levels, geography and demographics when we search for and decide on a partner. In an online dating profile, we call this identifying your "personal preferences." So, in a way, today’s computerized matchmaking and compatibility testing is simply a modernized Lupercalia lottery.

It is also interesting to note that Internet companies like eHarmony.com and PerfectMatch didn’t pioneer computer matchmaking. In 1956 Art Linkletter, host of the popular television show People Are Funny, matched a couple using a computer. Time magazine reported, "Remington Rand’s Univac No. 21 turned Cupid, brought together a flesh-and-blood couple as scientifically selected 'ideal marriage mates'" (Nov 19, 1956). Time also noted that the couple was paired based on a 32-item questionnaire developed by “The Father of American Marriage Counseling,” Paul Popenoe, Ph.D. The happy couple became engaged, and Art Linkletter offered to pay the airfare for their Paris honeymoon. Following the Univac No. 21 experiment, the computer dating craze blossomed through the 1970s and 80s, thanks in large part to the research and entrepreneurship of Glenn Wilson, Ph.D., the psychologist I affectionately refer to as “The Father of Modern Compatibility Testing."

The recent advent of the Internet and a plethora of online dating services have now radically expanded opportunities for singles to pursue relationships via computerized matchmaking – to be sure, one needs only to browse a selection of online dating sites to see collections of "testimonials" from couples who met through these services and are now married. In this sense, computer matchmaking has evolved from an entertainment vehicle to a commercial enterprise that is often being advertised to the public as a health and human service organization operated by relationship and testing experts. Perhaps it is ironic that "compatibility testing" can also be seen as a modern epidemic or obsession of sorts – just Google the phrase and you’ll be overwhelmed by no less than 15,100,00 entries. Googling "online compatibility testing" will only slightly relieve the whiplash with a staggering 3,670,000 entries.

Before you blindly throw your money and hope into a compatibility test, let’s try to make sense of this apparent craze. Time to revisit those two important questions!


Should you use a compatibility test?

It sounds like a simple "yes" or "no" question, but it’s actually more complex than that. It might surprise you to hear this from me, but, in my view, compatibility tests aren’t for everyone. The decision to use one depends on your particular personal goals and even your mental stamina. Online daters should consider six crucial issues to arrive at a decision:

1) Are you looking for a lasting relationship or a one-night stand?
If you’re using online dating to find a one-night stand or a long-term fling with no emotional attachment, then a compatibility test is a complete waste of time. However, I highly recommend their use if you’re using online dating to seriously cull romantic prospects for those with “relationship material.”

2) Do you have realistic expectations about compatibility tests?
Nearly everyone loves the concept of a “soul mate,” but holding out for the “perfect partner” is not the way to go. Simply put, there is no such thing as the “perfect partner.” Idealizing a mate is a recipe for headache and heartache – and so is the belief that a compatibility test is the answer to your relationship prayers. Compatibility tests are simply tools to help you gain further insight into the temperament, personality, attitudes and behavior of a prospect and how his/her psychological DNA will likely interact with your own. The results of a compatibility test should never be the sole basis for the decisions you make about pursuing a relationship. If you’re expecting a compatibility test to do most of the work for you, then walk away from it. However, it can be a good idea if you understand their limitations as well as benefits.

3) Do you honestly have the money to invest in a service with a test?
Let me be extremely bold here – good psychological tests and assessments are expensive to create. How expensive? Well, the Illinois State Board of Education, like other states, spends about 5 million dollars per year to update their achievement tests. Most people are shocked by this, but they’d have a new appreciation for the academics behind test creation if they knew what the steps were. I won’t dare bore you with them now, but sometime check out those procedures in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999/2002, Washington, DC: Author). Therefore, it’s completely reasonable for a website to charge a premium for offering a legitimate and good compatibility test (more on those criteria below). If you can’t truly afford this premium, then don’t invest in a compatibility test right now. Yes, a compatibility test really is an investment – of time, money, and continued energy following up on the results. But, it can be a wise investment if you can honestly afford one.

4) Do you have the time and attention to devote to researching the services and making an informed decision?
Most reasonable and educated people don’t make a major purchase like an automobile or a house without doing their homework first. Likewise, you shouldn’t instantly buy into any given compatibility test without doing some investigation and contemplation. After all, the effects of choosing a potential mate will affect you longer and more deeply than any home or vehicle. Therefore, don’t consider a compatibility test unless you’re willing to do your due diligence and see what tests are on the market and what each test has going for and against it. Compatibility tests only do part of the work for you; it’s then up to you to follow-up on the results in a responsible way. This can be done only if you have a good understanding of the test and feel comfortable with it.

5) Do you have the mental and emotional strength for it?
Compatibility tests are first and foremost personality tests. That is, they are psychological mirrors which can tell you much about who you are, how you tend to behave and what attracts and motivates you. Reading an objective and clinical assessment about oneself can be stirring and wonderful for self awareness and growth. On the other hand, it can also be a frightening and destabilizing experience for someone who’s not entirely ready to see themselves and their needs and wants in the sobering and clear light of day. I would avoid compatibility tests if even the sound of "pretty blatant and honest feedback" is threatening to you. Compatibility testing – like dating and courtship in general – is often a growing experience. Expect growing pains!

6) Do you have the patience for the right outcome?
Related to the notion of realistic expectations is the concept of patience. Many online daters will attest that initial match results from a compatibility test can be disillusioning, if not downright painful. People tend to equate "chemistry" with "compatibility." That’s a fair expectation to an extent – all modern theories and models of love and attachment do incorporate passion and physical attraction into the compatibility equation. But compatibility is not exclusively synonymous with physical passion – there’s much more to long-term compatibility than that! The job of a good compatibility test is not to match you to a million, hot singles. It bears repeating: Compatibility tests are simply tools to help you gain further insight into the temperament, personality, attitudes and behavior of a prospect and how his/her psychological DNA will likely interact with your own.


How can you tell if a particular compatibility test is legitimate?
The public has a right to be skeptical about online personality and compatibility testing. Public exposure to professional testing has been quite limited. The public is more familiar with fun little quizzes in magazines and entertainment websites – like the “What Kind of Dog are You?” quiz or tests that assess the strength of your "morals and ethics" by having you select your likely behavior in a given scenario. These tests are fun diversions, but they’re usually not the real thing. Unfortunately, evidence for many advertised compatibility tests is either blatantly missing or lacking in scientific standards.

It's not appropriate here for me to hype up or tear down particular compatibility tests on the market. Rather, I want to pass along four important issues to consider as you research the various tests and decide which is best for you:

1) Who created the test?
It’s an obvious question, but a crucial one. After all, one of first questions I hear children on an airplane ask the pilot is, “Hey, how long have you been flying anyway?” Out of the mouth of babes! Well, it’s no different for personality and compatibility testing – take time to find out if the test was actually developed by professionals who have the academic expertise and professional experience to know what they’re doing. Some relevant academic fields are clinical psychology, social psychology and of course let’s not forget tests and measurements. But, any ole’ doctorate doesn’t make the creator of a compatibility test qualified. I would be very skeptical of a test created by a doctor of say botany, physical education or English literature. And, I would be just as skeptical if I saw an academician endorse a particular test who also had no direct expertise and experience with professional psychological testing. Don’t be impressed with Ph.D.s per se, university settings or fancy endorsements – dig deeper and consider only the specific and relevant credentials of the test’s creators.

2) What is the theory behind the test?
There’s no shortage of psychological theories for love and attachment. Sometimes these theories overlap and other times they contradict one another. But, it’s also true that all responsible developers of compatibility tests have access to and should consult the same body of scientific data on long-term compatibility. Currently there is a debate in the field over the best formula for compatibility: some say the best couples are very similar to one another (the similarity hypothesis) across many characteristics, whereas others argue that the best couples have similarities and differences across their characteristics (the complementarity hypothesis). In other words, we are dealing with "birds of a feather flock together" versus "opposites attract." Most compatibility tests adhere to one or the other theory, so investigate tests closely to discover exactly how a given test is pairing you with romantic prospects. You might hear that a great deal of research suggests that similarity is a better predictor of relationship quality than complementarity. Well, any academic who really knows the scientific studies also knows that this conclusion is a gross oversimplification. The degree of similarity observed depends on the particular individual-difference domain studied, with romantic partners showing strong similarity in age, political, and religious attitudes; moderate similarity in education, general intelligence, and values; and little or no similarity in personality characteristics. Thus, similarity between all of a couple’s personal characteristics is an approach to matching that is overly rigid and misguided. Just keep in mind that couples who are too similar can face relationship conflicts and hazards exactly like couples who are too dissimilar.

3) What is the evidence behind the test?
One of the first things professionals evaluate in a test is its "psychometrics," i.e., the statistical evidence for a test’s reliability and validity. In a court of law, personal experience or testimonials is among the strongest types of evidence. But in the scientific world, it is one of the weakest. Marketers of tests like to tout testimonials of happy customers to "prove" that a given test works. My advice is not to be swayed by any testimonials. Testimonials are absolutely worthless outside of serving marketing and PR motives, and chances are the pretty picture of the couple that corresponds to the testimonial is not even a picture of a real couple. The problem with testimonials is that they don’t give accurate assessments of the quality and effectiveness of a compatibility test. Hearing about a positive experience from a couple who used a given test makes us all feel good and sounds persuasive. Yet, take a step back and you’ll realize that one testimonial tells you nothing about the outcomes of the other thousand couples that also took the compatibility test. It’s much better to ask the company with the compatibility test for scientific documentation like a white paper, conference presentation or journal article for the test’s reliability and validity. What you’re interested in is whether the compatibility test was constructed in accordance with professional testing standards as set forth in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999/2002, Washington, DC: Author). If you’ve friends or coworkers who are scientifically-minded, ask them to review the “evidence” to see what impresses or concerns them about the "science" behind the test. One strong word of caution: don’t use any compatibility test if the company offering it doesn’t have any scientific documentation for it or won’t share that documentation with you.

4) Who else has evaluated the evidence behind the test?
The essence of good science is peer review. Internal white papers or conference presentations with lax standards about the "science" behind a compatibility test are no substitutes for research that has been carefully scrutinized by experts – such as in a journal publication or prestigious conference. The best compatibility tests are ones with psychometrics that have been academically published. Such tests are the exception, not the rule, but they do exist. Other tests may not be published, but rather “independently certified or audited” by an outside expert. Some tests have both. This currently popular trend of outside auditing was started by True.com. Some companies see this approach as a compromise between quality control and maintenance of proprietary information. Unfortunately, not all auditors were created equal. Look carefully at the credentials of any outside expert or organization. Once again, be skeptical of any endorsement from a source with no recognized expertise and experience with professional psychological testing.


How to Win in the "Lottery" that is Compatibility Testing
A compatibility test can be an effective tool for helping you learn more about yourself and cull romantic prospects… as long as it’s a legitimate, science-based product. However, compatibility tests should never be used in isolation from your common sense and intuition as you interact with prospects. Remember that compatibility tests are not the “be all, end all” – they’re not substitutes for meeting and getting to know others. They merely help that process along.

Aside from the fact that most compatibility tests take a long time to complete, the biggest complaint I hear is that compatibility tests don’t always match you with people that you find physically attractive. That’s an understandable gripe, but then again, you have hormones and a limbic system in your body that tend to quickly and easily tell you when there is chemistry with another person. What is considerably more difficult is evaluating whether a person has relationship potential. I define that as psychological compatibility – a lasting connection on emotional and intellectual levels. Those attachments are the real bonds that keep a couple together over the long-term. Passion naturally ebbs and flows over the course of a relationship, but companionship, intimacy and commitment tend to grow. Unfortunately, in Western culture we’re all taught at an early age to look for and put more stock in the physical and passionate aspects of love, rather than the comfort and security that come from these other deeper, mature bonds.

With these caveats in mind, personality and compatibility testing can have tremendous value to serious online daters. Just keep perspective on it all, and I sincerely hope this article helps you do that.

My friend and colleague Dr. Glenn Wilson described compatibility testing best when he wrote, "It will not tell you whether or not you are going to fall in love with another person in a compulsive, ‘chemical’ way, just whether or not it is a good idea if you do" (CQ: Learn the Secret of Lasting Love, 2003, p. viii, London: Fusion Press, p. viii).



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