Dating is hard.
And we make it a whole lot harder by coming into it with high expectations: Nothing short of magic will do.
But dating success ultimately has far less to do with romance and far more to do with numbers and the psychology of decision-making. There’s a certain probability that you will like any one person you meet, and the more people you meet, the greater the chance that you’ll meet someone you want to invest in. But what if how we’re making that choice about who to invest in is all wrong?
What the people know
Only someone with a pen as menacing as Nora Ephron should have plotted the rom-com disaster that befell Claire Hunsaker in real life. Having just come back into the dating mix, Hunsaker went on a date with someone she’d met online. He hit on the waitress, insulted the taxi driver and stole flowers from the entrance to the restaurant, she says. She was so desperate to get away that when he went to the bathroom she told the waitress to drop the bill or she would flee the scene.
“I hadn’t really dated in a long time and really found it very overwhelming,” says Hunsaker, who works for a San Francisco marketing firm and has an MBA from Stanford. “So for me, I thought, well if I can put a little bit of data around what’s going on with my dates, maybe it won’t feel so scary.”
She tracked three data points: how interested she was in the person before the date, did she want him to call her afterwards, and did he call.
“I was just hoping to get a little bit of a sense about, do I even know what’s going on here? Is my radar just off? Do I even know who likes me? Do I know who I like?” she says. Then it started to yield results. So Hunsaker made a spreadsheet and passed it around to her friends.
“They went crazy,” she says. Her friends, both male and female, tracked 132 data points, including everything from height to hair color to hook-up date. Forty percent of these dates originated from real-world connections and 60 percent began online.
The results were a startling spray of information.
We’ll skip to the punchline. On any given date, there’s about a one in eight chance that you’ll want to hear from that person again, according to Hunsaker’s data. Given those odds, the chance that feeling will be mutual is one in 64. Meaning, according to the odds, it takes 65 first dates to find someone to develop a relationship with.
“That’s a randomly distributed probability, so you could hit it on date two, or you could hit it on date 180,” she says.
That’s a whole lot of time spent on awkward small talk and sinking down in your chair, willing the universe to cut power to the restaurant so you have an excuse to go home to your own couch.
“I think actually dating now is hard,” Hunsaker says.
She points to the social circles we scramble by moving around from place to place, and to the difficulty of knowing who we are and who we want to be with amid the thousands of people we meet in a lifetime. In short, the way we live now makes it hard to find love these days.
“I think it’s really hard to know what’s normal,” Hunsaker says. “We get a lot of messages from TV and movies, but normal is really about what the data says. And I kind of wanted to get away from the visions of normal that we get told about by Hollywood and find what is actually normal.”
What the dating professionals know
Even Match.com knows that we don’t know what we want.
Solving that problem takes far more than Mel Gibson’s What Women Want mind-reading powers. Mind-reading requires a mind that knows what it wants, and the evidence shows we don’t.
That’s why Match and other online dating websites have invested in algorithms designed to reprogram the matches they give you to undo the damage the misinformation you gave them at the beginning is doing to the chance that you will find a decent match.
“We actually find that when you go online and start a profile, a lot of people don’t tweak it as they go on through the site,” says Amy Canaday, public relations manager at Match.com. “So they just upload their profile, set their preferences and kind of forget about it. But the more they discover about people and read all different types of profiles, the more they really start to change their criteria and really bend a lot more than they thought they would.”
The Match.com algorithm takes in information on users’ habits — such as which profiles they spend the most time on — and gets smarter as users respond to suggested matches with “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.”
In the end, the algorithm learns more about you than you might know about yourself.
“You might have said you don’t want a guy who’s under six feet tall, but we notice that you’re not really weighing that criteria as heavily as you told us at the beginning, so then we’ll start serving you in your matches more guys that are under six feet tall,” Canaday says.
And Match.com claims responsibility for more dates, relationships and marriages than any other online dating site. But that, they’ll admit, comes down to one factor.
“We’re the biggest,” Canaday says.
“It’s a numbers game no matter where you’re dating, and we’re the biggest, so I think that’s a large part.” Match has 1.6 million paid subscribers. That’s just a little more than the population of the city of Philadelphia. It’s also a seventh of the current number of paid subscribers for World of Warcraft.
But an estimated one in six relationships start online now, according to a study from Match.com and research firm Chadwich Martin Bailey.
People are busier, people live in smaller social circles, spend more time on their careers. Online dating introduces people who might not otherwise meet, she says. Of course, so does joining a club or activity.
“One thing we always say here is that you can’t just rely on Match.com to find someone. You need to put yourself out there in all different ways,” Canaday says. “Go to a book club, join a kickball league, or whatever — and Match.com. But you always need to put yourself out there to find someone.”
What the people who study this stuff say
As much as romantic comedies may have filled our brains with useless nonsense about the validity of chasing down men you met through radio shows and the importance of finding a person who says “Bless you” when you sneeze, the panicked heroine of What’s Your Number? may just be on to something.
According to new research coming from Stanford University, the way we make decisions about who to marry is set up to be fraught with emotions that undermine our confidence in a decision that ultimately succeeds or fails based on how much confidence we have.
Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, studies how confident people feel about sequential decisions versus simultaneous decisions and applying this research to marriage — love marriages versus arranged marriages.
“In a true love marriage way of making a decision, if you move for the next option, very often the past option is going to disappear. … So the decision here is about whether I stick to the present known option or do I move to a subsequent option which often is unknown? So we are dealing with an unknown bird in the bush versus a known bird in the hand,” Shiv says. “So since most of us are eternal optimists, we kind of think that the next option is going to be better than the present option.”
Two emotions come into play: Hope for something better in the future and fear of being stuck with an inferior option. So what you’ll see, Shiv says, is people moving on and on and not deciding.
“Even if they make a decision, they’re less confident that they made the right decision simply because of, again, these emotions,” he says.
Confidence is contagious and persuasive. It convinces investors to dump money into startups, and it convinces people to engage with and put resources into the choices they’ve made — like a partner. Lose confidence, and you quit investing. A relationship could fail just because you doubted its success.
If you could line up all the people you might ever date and compare them, you’d feel more confident in that decision, Shiv asserts — and this is why arranged marriages, where possible candidates are considered simultaneously, lead to a confident choice.
That’s not an option, though. So Shiv suggests a “quasi-simultaneous” decision. Talk to anyone who has been in a relationship, he says, and often they can name one or two people from their past they probably should have chosen as a partner. Line those people up with the present option and compare that.
Not that you should spend the rest of your days singing along with Katy Perry’s “In another life…” but that you should structure your decisions to steer clear of those problematic emotions that might otherwise have you rushing across busy streets and getting run over by taxi cabs a la An Affair to Remember.
“The thing that really blew me away wasn’t the numbers. There’s fascinating insights from the data — people are 11 percent less attractive than their online profiles. That’s hilarious,” Hunsaker says. “But I think the real takeaway is that everybody who gave me data was somebody who really just wanted to find a partner to love and love them back.”
Maybe that’s knowing the data — or funny data, or funny stories. As for Hunsaker herself, she hasn’t yet found number 65.
“I am still on the search, although I don’t keep track of the data any more,” Hunsaker says. “I think I’ve learned what I was going to learn out of that.”