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Editorial: Online Dating
Searching for a Partner 101

by James Houran, Ph.D.

(August 2009) Signs, signs…everywhere are signs…

Researchers recently published study in which they gave online daters varying numbers of search results to their queries on dating sites. They found that having more search results leads to a less careful partner choice. In more academic sounding lingo, the researchers said this about the results, “more search options lead to less selective processing by reducing users' cognitive resources, distracting them with irrelevant information, and reducing their ability to screen out inferior options."

In other words, when faced with cognitive overload, date-seekers evaluated as many matches as possible, even ones that weren't a good fit, and they were less able to distinguish good options from bad ones.


Other experts have also written about the consequences of so-called “cognitive overload.” Assistant Professor Michael Norton at Harvard Business School found in his research that the average date-seeker typically spends nearly twelve hours a week searching online and emailing for a payoff of less than two hours of offline dating. That return on investment didn’t impress Dr. Norton. The gist here again is that daters seem to evaluate others only superficially at best, which is compounded by the idea that too many options raises daters’ expectations too high. Maybe that’s true. For instance, my own published research shows that people are rather skeptical of dating recommendations given by compatibility tools and the likelihood that these recommendations will pan out offline.

And then we have critics of this entire hullabaloo about “cognitive overload.”  Reacting to news of these recent studies, one industry insider rightly said, "I think careful people are careful no matter how many choices they have. Careless users will be careless..." 

So now what?

One thing we can agree on is that searching for a long-term partner without a plan is a really a plan for failure. My rule-of-thumb to you is: “Browse for entertainment, but filter for effectiveness.” With this simple principle in mind, here are five simple steps to maximize your search for a partner:

Step 1: Filter people first by proximity to you. Long distance relationships often remain fantasy relationships because distance is not love’s ally. Let me make this clear… absence doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. There’s no practical sense in searching for someone who lives far from you if you neither have nor want to invest the resources in making a long-distance relationship work. Thus, people who aren’t geographically accessible to you are likely a waste of your time.

Step 2: Filter people next by your unwavering “deal breakers.” Everyone has a set of “deal breakers” and “deal makers.” Deal makers are traits or characteristics that you definitely must have in a mate. Deal breakers are traits or characteristics that you definitely don’t want in a mate. Sometimes our deal breakers or makers are realistic and sometimes not. Evaluate your deal makers and breakers to ensure they’re realistic and workable. If not, consider loosening your standards. If you still have clear deal breakers or makers, then use them in keyword searchers on dating sites. Keyword searches can filter in or out people who seem to fit (or not fit) your basic needs in a partner.

Step 3: Filter people third by psychological compatibility, assuming the tool provided is truly grounded in science. Much has been written lately about the reality of compatibility matching tests. You can see my earlier write ups about these tools here <link>. However, there are some reasonably sound tools out there that at least can help you to begin to screen people out or in based on psychological compatibility. Psychological compatibility is what really keeps a couple together over time -- the degree of friendship, respect and accommodation a couple has. “Physical chemistry” is important, but the evidence so far is that no test can reliably predict it, physical chemistry naturally waxes and wanes over time in a relationship and that no amount of passion keeps a couple going if other, more practical issues aren’t met.

Step 4: Don’t try to maintain deep friendships with a myriad of people online. As imaginative and innovative as humans are, they can’t constructively handle or process more than about five pieces of information (plus or minus two) at any given time. This is one reason why phone numbers are only seven digits long and why excessive multi-tasking is ineffective. People work best with small, not large, amounts of information and data points, so work with Mother Nature rather than fight her.  Invest time in getting to know a small group of prospects, as opposed to working a crowd. The time you invest will be well spent, and if someone drops from the group then you can always add another!

Step 5: Be mindful of your relationship goal. Online dating can be fun, but a search for a lasting partner still requires work. This means that you must maintain a conscious effort to stay focused on your ultimate goal. Don’t give in to temptations to deviate from that goal. If you want someone who’s sincerely interested in a long-term, committed relationship then don’t spend time with those who have a different agenda (admit it…you’re not likely going change their minds). So avoid people with different goals, no matter how attractive, cute, accomplished or geographically accessible they are. Invest time only in those with similar relationship goals if you want results.


1 Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. New York:
Henry Hold and Company.

2 Fisher, H.E., Aron, A., & Brown, L. (2006). Romantic love: A mammalian brain system for mate choice. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 361, 2173-2186. 

3 Francoeur, R.T. (1991). Becoming a sexual person, (2nd ed). New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company.

4 Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R.L. (1993). Historical and cross-cultural perspectives on passionate love and
sexual desire. Annual Review of Sex Research, 4, 67-98.

5 Lawrence, R.J. (1989). The poisoning of eros: Sexual values in conflict. New York: Augustine Moore

6 Money, J. (1985). The destroying angel: Sex, fitness & food in the legacy of degeneracy theory, Graham
Crackers, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes & American health history. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Press. 

7 Singer, I. (1987). The nature of love: Vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

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