If you doubt that we live in a superstitious age, look at online dating.
The rationale of most dating sites is that they offer a scientific approach to dating. Instead of meeting people at random, they claim that answering a series of wide-ranging questions about your preferences will help you select a potential dating partner based on real similarities and differences.
In my experience, though, the role of science is primarily to make the process more credible. Designing a poll is a job for an expert, and even they often make mistakes and find skewed results outside what they expected. You do not make a poll scientific by taking a list of questions – often contributed by the users of the site –and simply tally up similarities and differences. Many people are amused by answering questions to supposedly learn – about themselves, to judge by the popularity of quizzes on Facebook, but popularity does not make them any more or less scientific.
Nor do the results encourage me to believe in the process. Over the last few years, I have exchanged emails with perhaps a dozen women on dating sites, most of whom are supposed to have over a 90% similarity with me. Without exception, we found after writing back and forth a few times that, whatever we might have in common, it wasn’t enough for us to keep in touch, let alone to want us to meet face to face. We drifted out of contact, with no blame or disappointment on my part, and none, so far as I know, on theirs.
In addition, twice dating sites have given me a close match with women I not only knew but intensely disliked. The suggestions tickled my sense of humor, but did nothing to give me any faith in the matching process.
The problem, I suspect is that people don’t know what they want. Or perhaps most of us are unable to take personal chemistry into account when we express our preferences.
In my cases, for example, when asked if I would date a smoker, my first impulse is to say that I never would. To me, smoking is a disgusting habit. I hate to have the smell on my clothes, and a lifetime of exercise has given me a cardio-vasular system that makes me away of even the least whiff of tobacco or pot.
Yet, despite my preferences, my late wife was a smoker when we met. She was considerate enough to smoke outside, and tofreshen her breath afterwords, and thirteen years after we married she quit smoking altogether. Yet regardless, I could often smell tobacco around her, and only the diplomacy that helps newlyweds survive together long enough to become old-marrieds kept me from constantly commenting on it. All the same, I endured the smell because we were attracted in other ways.
The way I see things, if I could ignore for so many years a prejudice as strong as the one I have against smoking, then the questions on dating are poor predictors at best. You could answer hundreds of those questions, and they still would not predict accurately, because they are factors in personal attraction for which the questions do not account.
Perhaps people who are more neurotic or stubborn than I am might hold to their preferences more strongly. But the point is, you can never tell. You may find tidiness a necessity, yet develop feelings for a slob. You may insist that you want a potential partner who is taller than you, yet find someone below average height irresistible. The variables are too complex to offer any guarantees.
The one advantage that dating sites do have is that they collect a group of available people that is far larger than you would ever find offline, and allow you to reject the impossible more quickly and with fewer hurt feelings.
Personally, though, I would rather go to a meetup or a night class. My odds may be no better than on a dating site, or even worse, but at least I will have enjoyed myself or learned something while looking around. By contrast, all that you can be sure about with dating sites is that they cannot deliver reliably what they promise, and are about as scientific as horoscopes.