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February 21, 2015
by Cindy Ariel,Phd

The Science of Online Dating

February 21, 2015 07:55 by Cindy Ariel,Phd  [About the Author]

Online dating sites are a popular place to seek relationships. While the majority of couples still meet offline at work, school, places of worship, bars and social events, today’s couples are almost as likely to meet on-line as they are to meet in any of these offline venues. This article explores whether online daters are wasting their time looking for love in all the wrong places, or whether an intimate partner can really be found online.

One thing being borne out by the literature is that online dating may have some benefits that conventional dating does not. For one thing, it can offer a convenient and safe way to meet lots of potential partners. It can also be a way for people to meet others when they are otherwise too busy or do not have a large social network. Even for people who do have a large network of friends looking on-line can add another broad avenue for meeting people.

The stated goal of dating online is often romantic connection which takes some of the uncertainty out of the initial dating search. The anonymity of computer mediated conversation also allows people to be more assertive and to connect with people they may otherwise never come into contact with.  Because of the ease and relative anonymity of online dating sites, people may take more risk reaching out to those they might not approach in person, or may never meet another way.  Some may have an easier time opening up online for these reasons as well.

Online dating sites have the potential to broaden the chances for people in the pursuit of a mutually satisfying intimate relationship.  They often offer increased opportunities to meet potential partners, and easy access to many potential dates. People for whom certain characteristics are important, such as religion or sexual orientation can also find sites that narrow the pool for them by catering only to specific groups. Thus, dating sites can offer more targeted choices, more potential dating partners, and therefore more romantic possibilities.

Various on-line dating sites claim that their methods for matching partners lead to more compatible, longer lasting relationships, but there is no scientific evidence to support these claims.  Many of these sites use mathematical match-making equations, called algorithms, which turn matching partners into a system. This type of matching usually involves a series of personality measures possibly combined with psychological theory, or compatibility ‘predictors’ such as similarity (‘birds of a feather’), or complementarity (‘opposites attract’).  As Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis and Sprecher (2012) point out based on their critical analysis, such factors are not as important as other factors to a healthy relationship.

Digging deeper on potential “matches”

What ethnicity and religion, or even preferred music and hobbies cannot tell us about the two people who share them is how they will relate to each other and the dynamic between them. How will they grow together and change together over time? How will they deal with adversity and conflict as a couple?  Will they share humor and laughter together, support each other socially and economically, cope with stressful life events? In order to move into assessing these more important relationship factors, Finkel et al (2012) suggest turning online meetings quickly into personal interaction. Profiles may be used to peak interest and narrow down a search, but long term relationship satisfaction and stability are not predictable based on information in a profile.

Having no dating prospects may make people feel sad and lonely, but having too many can be overwhelming and lead to indecision. Dating site profiles often have people spending a great deal of time sifting through information such as income and educational levels, or physical attributes. This may be important baseline information but it does not offer a way to discover compatibility on a deeper level. Profiles cannot provide the kind of information you can only get from personal interaction where the dynamics between two people develops over time. Attraction can grow and relationships can develop where they may not have been predicted. Other problems may arise with profiles when one look or a ‘wink’ doesn’t feel immediately romantic; it may be too easy to move on to the next profile without giving necessary time for any kind of interaction or potential relationship. Although some still believe in ‘love at first sight’ most real-life long term romantic relationships develop a little more slowly.  

The only way to discover how two people will interact in a relationship together is for them to interact:  they need to talk, to meet, and to spend time in face-to-face interaction. Computer mediated communication is open to misinterpretation and lacks important social cues. Too many pictures and bios to compare can make choosing difficult. At some point it’s important to pick a few of the good ones and move the relationship into three dimensions. 

Facts and Figures

Despite its popularity, there continues to be some stigma attached to meeting people online and some people still believe that internet dating is for lonely desperados or people seeking sexual exploitation. One of the stereotypes people have regarding online dating is that many subscribers on the sites are deceitful, trying to take advantage of innocent people desperate for a date. Truth is, whether on or off-line people sometime deceive others in order to seem more appealing and have more potential dates.  A 2007 study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor Catalina L. Toma, and reported in the New York Times (Rosenbloom, 2011), found that 81% of potential on-line daters lie about their height, weight and age.  The study found people less likely to lie about deeper issues since they realize that the truth will eventually come out.  People seem to tell lies on-line that can be seen more as slight exaggerations of the truth that they hope will entice an encounter rather than as massive lies designed to hurt someone.

A recent survey of 19,131 people who married between 2005 and 2012 found that about 17 percent met through an online dating site (Cacioppo, Cacioppo, Gonzaga, Ogburn, & VanderWeele, 2013). This study, commissioned by dating site eHarmony, found that marriages that began on-line were slightly less likely to result in separation or divorce and were associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction among those who remained married.   To ensure the integrity of the study independent statisticians verified the statistical analyses. In addition, an agreement with eHarmony was reached prior to analyses of the data to ensure that any results bearing on eHarmony would not affect publication. Still, in a related study, Aditi (2014) found that couples who met their partners online were more likely to date than to become marital partners compared to couples who met offline. Results of this study also suggest that breakup rates for all relationships were higher for couples who met online than couples who met offline. In addition to whether a couple meets on or off-line, however, it’s important to take other factors of the relationship into account such as the quality of the relationship itself and important relationship characteristics such as level of trust and intimacy

Due to the ongoing stigma, some couples that meet online create a back-story together about how their relationship began that they tell others rather than admitting to having met online.  When people do tell family and friends of their internet meeting, they are sometimes met with skepticism, discomfort, even laughter. Thus we may not even know how many satisfied long-term couples actually meet online.


Where one meets their long term partner (online or offline venues) is only one factor in the longevity and success of a relationship. Where two people meet, if they meet the right people, ultimately doesn’t matter.  Dating online can be a suitable and safe way to meet others as long as general rules of safety are met such as first meeting in a public place over coffee or lunch, telling a friend about the date, and getting to and from the date independently.  Emails, texts and phone conversations help potential partners to get an initial sense of each other and their potential compatibility before meeting.  But, the best approach seems to be moving the conversations offline and into a face-to-face arena as soon as feasible.

When used safely and cautiously, online dating can be a smart tool to meet people one might otherwise never come into contact with. If expectations are kept in check and it is used as just another way to meet people it can be fun and fruitful. It can even lead to a long-term committed, emotionally satisfying relationship. One never knows where true love may be found.


Aditi, P. Is online better than offline for meeting partners? Depends: Are you looking to marry or to date? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. October 2014, 17(10): 664-667.    doi:10.1089/cyber.2014.0302.

Cacioppo, JT, Cacioppo, S Gonzaga, GC, Ogburn, EL, & VanderWeele, TJ.    (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-    line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,    110 (25), 10135-10140. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1222447110

Finkel, EJ, Eastwick, PW, Karney, BR, Reis, HT, Sprecher, S. (2012). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological       science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(1), 3-66.

Rosenbloom, S. (2011, November 12). Love lies and what they learned, New York Times.


About the Author

Cindy Ariel Cindy Ariel, PhD

Cindy Ariel, Phd has practiced as a psychologist for over 20 years. She received her master's degree from the Graduate School at Hahnemann Medical College and her doctorate from Temple University. Dr. Ariel writes occasionally for several publications and is co-editor of the book, Voices From the Spectrum (2006). She is also author of Loving Someone with Asperger's syndrome: Understanding and Connecting with your Partner, a self-help book for intimate partners of someone on the autism spectrum.

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