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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Chemistry versus Compatibility

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.

Chemistry Versus Compatibility
in Online Dating Matching Systems

Quick Access:
Which is better in online dating matching programs - chemistry or compatibility?

Are matching systems that measure "chemistry" more important than those that measure "compatibility?"


This is a good question, and one that many reporters have posed to me in recent months. The short answer is “no.”  But, let me explain in more detail.

Common sense and personal experience tell us that physical attraction is an important aspect of any romantic relationship. Arguably the push for measuring raw, physical attraction was started by Dr. Mark Thompson and his team at weAttract. They developed a computerized “physical attraction test” that searched photographs of individuals from a pool of online daters that a user will find attractive based on that user’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 (I’ve seen news reports that MicroSoft is working on something even slicker). 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.

More recently, the industry has seen start ups claim to match people based on their DNA – which takes the notion of physical chemistry to a whole level!  Then again, it is a level that creeps me out, and unsettled many online daters that have read up on these services. is perhaps the most visible proponent of matching based on fundamental and chemical elements related to physical attraction. They have positioned themselves against eHarmony, and the ensuing battle for customers reminds me of the ongoing feud against MicroSoft and Apple. Indeed, eHarmony and Chemistry are truly different “cultures.”

I think is handling the sexuality aspects of online dating in much more classy, educational and productive way than many other paid online dating sites -- so kudos to Dr. Helen Fisher and the Chemistry team. Helen and I are acquaintances, so I am familiar with her questionnaire and she is aware of my work in scaling and mathematics in compatibility testing.

The truth is that researchers 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 is well established that high levels of Passionate/ Erotic Love characterize early stages of romantic relationships, but that 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 is 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 promotes, but it is not what actually happens. Too often, people are not taught realistic expectations for relationships --and 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 am aware, all points to a cognitive view of romantic compatibility, which stresses partners’ dynamic reinterpretation of their social, emotion and sexual realities. In past publications and academic conferences, I have 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 view sides with previous work (4,5) suggesting that 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 Edmonds1 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) that is determined mostly by the psychological costs or benefits associated with changing or leaving the relationship (3). To avoid negative consequences we suspect that partners use Erotic Love to reinforce Companionate Love or vice versa. Of course, individuals can also use negative distortions to effectively 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 mindset 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.

As noted by Dr. Thompson and his weAttract 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 Dr. Fisher’s efforts along these lines, but I have seen no compelling psychometric 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. Then again, most people don’t need help determining whether they find a particular person physically attractive. What people truly need education about are the factors that feed long-term, psychological compatibility. No one is really taught about this latter stuff, and it is more crucial than physical attraction per se.

While we all wait for the latest and greatest matching system, let me draw everyone's attention to Wilson and Cousin’s (10) 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).

Related Links:
» The Truth About Compatibility Testing

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

2Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Redefining delusion based on studies of subjective paranormal ideation. Psychological Reports, 94, 501-513.

3Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2000). Modeling Maher’s attribution theory of delusions as a cusp catastrophe. Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 4, 235-254.

4Levinger, G. (1986). Compatibility in relationships. Social Science, 71, 173-177.

5Neff, 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.

6Scheier, 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.

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

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

9Thompson, 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:

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

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