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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Do Compatibility Tests Work When They Can't Measure Attraction?

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Compatibility Tests and Attraction

Aren’t “compatibility tests” useless because they don’t predict physical attraction between people?

 There’s been much buzz lately about Dr. Helen Fisher and her work at – an offshoot of This is's attempt to enter the niche market of online daters seeking “long-term compatibility.” In the US market, and PerfectMatch dominate this niche.

Dr. Fisher is getting good publicity, because she purports to have a “test” that predicts if two people have what it takes to sustain romantic love and passion – what people call chemistry – over the long haul. This promise resonates with people, because research by independent research firm Synovate reveals that one of the top reasons people worldwide do not use online dating sites is that they would “just rather meet someone in person first” (see the Table directly below - click it to enlarge).



Click Image or Here to Enlarge

The impression is that people don’t want to go through a “box” to meet and get to know someone – or in other words a computer and quizzes can’t really assess if you have chemistry with someone. I agree with this sentiment to some extent, but I also think is handling the topic of sexuality in a much more classy, educational and productive way than other online dating sites -- so kudos to Dr. Fisher and Having said that, I also have reservations.

Helen and I are acquaintances, so I’m familiar with her questionnaire and she’s aware of my work in scaling and mathematics in compatibility testing. Scientists are still grappling with this notion of love and attraction, but traditionally “love” has been simplified as two main types -- Passionate / Erotic Love (mechanisms driving sexuality and emotional passion) and Companionate Love (feelings of deep attachment and friendship). It’s well established that high levels of Passionate / Erotic Love characterize early stages of romantic relationships. However, these levels naturally and predictably fade over the course of a relationship. That is not a sign that the bond is weakening for the couple; it’s simply a natural progression where one bond gives way to the influence of feelings and drives that more often concern attachment, friendship and commitment.

Passionate Love throughout one’s relationship of the intensity experienced in the early stages of a relationship is what Hollywood and songwriters promote, but it’s not what actually happens. Too often, people are not taught realistic expectations for relationships, so they understandably become disappointed.

My own research using advanced scaling techniques derived from modern test theory, as well as the literature with which I’m aware, all points to a cognitive view of romantic compatibility. This view stresses partners’ dynamic reinterpretation of their social, emotion and sexual realities. In past publications and academic conferences, I’ve defined it as “a holistic pattern of shared beliefs and values, mutually beneficial similarities and differences across personality traits, demographic preferences, and a cognitive set that motivates and sustains both erotic and companionate love in each partner.” This perspective agrees with previous work (4,5) that suggests relationship satisfaction derives from the tendency to view positive perceptions as more important than negative perceptions, as well as the tendency to alter the importance of specific perceptions as is needed over time. For example, the tendency to describe the marital relationship in unrealistically positive terms is called marital conventionalization. Such positive distortions in marriage– what Edmonds (1) viewed as social desirability bias in marital quality measurements —are strikingly similar to psychological constructs such as positive illusions (8) and unrealistic optimism (6).

The assessment or cognitive appraisal of one’s partner and the quality of marriage thus parallels a self-fulfilling prophecy (2) whose contents form a mindset that is determined mostly by the psychological costs associated with changing or leaving the relationship (3). To avoid these costs and consequences, it seems likely that partners use Erotic Love to reinforce Companionate Love or vice versa. Of course, individuals can also use negative distortions to negate Erotic or Companionate Love. Such mindsets help explain why satisfied couples can be “objectively” incompatible and unsatisfied couples can be “objectively” compatible. Although my own work has not assessed this variable in any rigorous way, I speculate that this cognitive set is related to Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s (7) notion of the conscious decision to commit to a relationship. Accordingly, conventionalization may not simply be a confounding variable in relationship satisfaction and adjustment; it might well be the very process by which couples remain satisfied and bonded over time.

Of course, common sense and personal experience tell us that physical attraction is also a highly idiosyncratic phenomenon. To this end, the testing firm of has developed a computerized “physical attraction test” that finds photographs of individuals from a pool of online daters that a person will find attractive based on that person’s preferences mapped from a set of prototype faces and body types. At the 2005 iDate Conference, Fujii Film introduced facial recognition software that parallels the pioneering efforts of This software reportedly finds matches to photographs a person finds attractive from online dating profiles. Thus, if an online-dater finds Person A and Person B attractive from their photographs, this software will locate other candidates from an online dating pool that resemble the photographs of Person A and B.

As noted by Thompson and his colleagues (9), it remains to be seen whether psychological and physical compatibility can efficiently and validly be synthesized into a single compatibility test and matching system. I appreciate Helen's efforts along these lines, but I have seen no compelling scientific evidence for the “test” -- or for most compatibility tests for that matter. I anticipate that any successful efforts along these lines would significantly increase the validity of a compatibility test in predicting relationship satisfaction and stability.

In the mean time, let me draw everyone's attention to Wilson and Cousin’s (10) excellently worded and accurate perspective on the current state of romantic compatibility testing – “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” (p. viii).


1 Edmonds, V. H. (1967). Marital conventionalization: definition and measurement. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 29, 681-688.

2 Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Redefining delusion based on studies of subjective paranormal ideation. Psychological Reports, 94, 501-513. 3 Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2000). Modeling Maher’s attribution theory of delusions as a cusp catastrophe. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 4, 235-254. 4 Levinger, G. (1986). Compatibility in relationships. Social Science, 71, 173-177.

5 Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2003). The dynamic structure of relationship perceptions: differential importance as a strategy of relationship maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1433-1446.

6 Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well being: theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.

7 Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

8 Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.

9 Thompson, M., Zimbardo, P. & Hutchinson, G. (2005). Consumers are having second thoughts about online dating: are the real benefits getting lost in over promises? [Industry Report]. Dallas, TX: Available online at:

10 Wilson, G. D., & Cousins, J. M. (2003). CQ: learn the secret of lasting love. London: Fusion Press.

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