February 07, 2012, 4:56 PM — Users flock to online dating sites in ever greater numbers, but despite their marketing claims, services such as Match.com and eHarmony may not be offering potential mates chosen through rigorous scientific methods, a group of psychologists and sociologists have charged.
"Companies have not made their algorithms [for matching potential mates] available to the public, nor even to regulatory authorities. Nobody knows what the algorithms are," said Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. "It is certainly possible they have some magic formula no one has looked at that could in fact be effective. However, there is no evidence for that."
Reis and other psychologists and sociologists have published a sweeping review of scientific studies that have been done over the past decade on online dating, which will be published in the February edition of the Psychological Science in the Public Interest journal. Commissioned by the Association for Psychological Science, the study reviews and summarizes more than 400 psychology studies and public interest surveys that have been done on this topic.
The sites themselves point to statistical successes of their services, even if they decline to reveal the proprietary matching algorithms that led to their success. Like other Internet services -- such as Google -- online dating sites jealously guard their algorithms as trade secrets. But such secrecy should prevent them from making claims of scientific accuracy, the researchers charge.
"Online dating is fast becoming one of the major ways in which people meet their partners. It is growing at a very rapid rate," Reis said. "People have always tried to set one another up. So the practices that many sites have are just modern versions of what is going on since time immemorial."
Over the past decade, online dating has become the second most popular way of meeting partners, surpassed only by meeting through friends, the researchers conclude. In the early 1990s, less than one percent of the population met through commercial dating services, including printed personal advertisements. Then, there was still a stigma attached to online dating, the authors note.
Today, that stigma seems to have largely disappeared. By 2005, 37 percent of American single adults had dated someone they connected with online. And by 2009, 22 percent of heterosexual couples and 61 percent of same-sex couples found their partners through the Web.
Online dating provides the convenience -- and fun -- of being able to peruse a list of potential mates, scanning dozens in a few minutes. But this approach has a number of limitations, researchers warn. People become conditioned to a shopping mentality, where they can just pick the desired features from a list.