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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Editorials > July 2009

A Closer Look at Science Friction

by James Houran, Ph.D.

(July 2009) My presentation at the recent 2009 iDate conference in Los Angeles discussed the topic of compatibility testing in the present and future. It might seem that there’s nothing really new to say in this area when you read my past articles (click here to read more), but that’s not quite the case. There’s always something happening in this aspect of the industry! Some daters trust compatibility profiling, while others dismiss it as hogwash.  Compatibility profiling done correctly is “science friction” not science fiction — psychological questionnaires definitely can help to determine whether two people will have good friction (“rubbing each other the right way”) or bad friction (“rubbing each other the wrong way”).


To the skeptics of compatibility profiling, I say that there are a few published scientific papers demonstrating that some profiling systems can predict whether a relationship will be stable and satisfying. And to the true-believers of compatibility profiling, I say that not all matching systems are created equal. In fact, very few seem are backed by any hard data or comprehensive outcomes studies. A recent article in Skeptic magazine (Vol. 15, #1, 2009) entitled “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places” by Aimee King, Deena Austin-Oden and Jeffrey Lohr presents a rather damning expose of “scientific matchmaking” that echoes the points raised in my own academic article on the subject published way back in 2004! (“Do online matchmaking tests work? An assessment of preliminary evidence for a publicized predictive model of marital success.” North American Journal of Psychology, 6, 507-526).

The media are slowly, but surely, starting to look at the claims of dating sites with a critical eye. In so doing, the public is also beginning to learn the difference between marketing spin and impartial facts. Let’s look at some of the latest statistics released by two of the biggest services out there…eHarmony and’s claims

  • 56 million first emails sent per year
  • 132 million winks sent per year
  • 12 couples got married or engaged per day thanks to
  • Users go on 6 million dates each year
  • 1 in 1369 dates leads to marriage on (6 million / (12*365))
  • makes one million dollars a day from subscription revenues. That is $83,000 in subscription revenue for every marriage that comes out of the site.

eHarmony’s claims

  • 118 couples a day get married or engaged
  • 12-15K new users every day
  • Full audience turnover every 6.5 months

These statistics are sometimes confusing, and at the very least they are incomplete. It’s more useful to know how many of those relationships turned out to be satisfying and stable. For instance, the number of marriages or engagements is meaningless unless one also knows the divorce or break up rates for the matching services. One-sided statistics like these are like saying, "I'm the best physician in town; I operated on 100 people each day!" with the undisclosed kicker being that 98 of those people died each day on the table. Plus, engagements or marriages are only meaningful indicators of success for those people who care about long-term compatibility. Those who seek short-term relationships have different criteria!  Oh, and while we’re on the subject, my view is that "marriage" is a questionable metric for gauging matching success (click here).

The point is if companies are going to sell their dating sites by emphasizing engagement or marriage rates then it's only fair to report to consumers the divorce rates for those matches. So-called "success rates" are only put into proper perspective when a ratio is given to "failure rates"; otherwise there is no such thing as a success rate. "Success rate" assumes something is compared to a benchmark. Of course, there's probably a very good reason why those statistics aren’t shared with the media or consumers; the statistics probably tell a different story than the "happily ever after" image being pushed in TV ads and such.

The fact is that not everyone achieves “happily ever after,” and this bit of realism should be shared with consumers. To be sure, my research with online daters suggests that consumers would find sites more credible if a legitimate success rate was given. After all, no service or matchmaking process is 100% successful, so showing both sides of the story may well be a wise marketing move. And it educates people that a matching method is just one part of building a relationship. Matching systems don’t replace consumer education about nurturing relationships over time, yet the implicit message by some sites is that no hard work on your developing relationship is needed once you’re matched with someone who’s “compatible” with you. Now that’s science fiction!

Now critical folks in the industry might argue that showing a true success rate would hurt business. Well, it might if a certain matching method is completely bogus. But for those that are grounded in legitimate, validated scientific principles, I think playing it straight with consumers will only serve to enhance the industry. This assertion is consistent with research findings on reference letters in HR contexts. In particular, rather than reflect poorly on a job candidate, obtaining balanced references from other sources can actually help candidates. For example, researchers at Cleveland State University made a startling discovery about perceived credibility during the recruiting process. The researchers created two fictitious job candidates, Dave and John, with two identical resumes and two nearly identical letters of reference. The only difference: John’s reference letter included the sentence: “Sometimes, John can be difficult to get along with.” They sent the letters and resumes out to two different groups of personnel directors. Guess which candidate personnel directors most wanted to interview? It was “difficult-to-get-along-with” John. The researchers concluded that the open and voluntary criticism of John made the praise in the reference letter more believable. As a result, the personnel directors perceived John to be a much stronger candidate. In other words, revealing a less-flattering side to John actually helped to sell John.

I submit that a similar approach is long overdue in online dating. Until then, it looks like it’ll be up to concerned academics and investigative journalists to keep the sites honest and the consumers thinking critically about those marketing claims.


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