"The range of choice can be a positive thing, by giving people many more options in a very time efficient way," Reis said. "But it can also encourage a mentality where one goes through a list of partners in the same way one might go through a list of books on Amazon. And often this approach is not helpful."
One aspect of online dating services that the researchers highlighted was how they often implied in their advertisements and promotional material that their ability to match partners is based on scientific algorithms. eHarmony's Web site, for instance, claims to match candidates using "29 dimensions of compatibility," pairing people for such factors as emotional energy, adaptability, romantic passion and other factors.
The researchers didn't single out eHarmony specifically in the study, "but it is certainly the site that makes the strongest claims to have a scientific basis for the algorithms that it uses," Reis said. "I presume that it does real science in developing its algorithm, but it has never made its work available to the scientific community, so nobody knows what's actually in it." In other words, eHarmony markets its service with the patina of scientific legitimacy, but has not gone through standard scientific peer review to be verified as scientifically valid.
In lieu of published research, sites may post research on their own sites, not disclosing study and data collection methods. "I liken this to a drug company putting out a drug, making a claim for it, and then telling no one what is in the drug," Reis said.
The problem with such claims is that people will assume that, through the workings of science, they will be finding the perfect partner, an attitude that can encourage an unrealistic and even destructive viewpoints in regard to relationships. When a relationship doesn't proceed exactly as hoped for, individuals may feel frustrated and insecure, the researchers assert.
Also the approach rests on the notion that a perfect partner can be found by identifying common or complimentary traits, an idea the researchers cast doubt upon.
"It is highly unlikely that what you can learn about two people before they have ever met can account for more than a trivial amount of what determines if a relationship will succeed over a long period of time," Reis said. "Relationship success over a long period depends on how two people interact with one another. It depends on what happens in their lives, the adversities and successes they have together, the way in which their lives mature and grow. These things are simply not knowable before they meet," Reis said.