Posts Tagged ‘online dating’

Early in high school, the girl I had a crush on started going out with a friend of mine. I sat down and wrote all the possible outcomes of their relationship, assigning each a percentage of probability. I never showed her my calculations, but I consoled myself with the certainty that the relationship was doomed. After all, I had proved it.

My bias was obvious, of course. However, I was also guilty of reification – the mistaken belief that meaningful numbers could be assigned to abstractions like the probability of a relationship lasting.

Looking back, I can only plead wishful thinking and over-confidence in my own intellect.

However, I am far from the only person to fall prey to reification. For instance, as Stephen Jay Gould points out in The Mismeasure of Man, IQ tests as they are used today presuppose that intelligence – usually labeled g – is a concrete entity that can measured as easily as the length of a person’s foot. In fact, as Gould points out, statistical analysis can make g appear and disappear at will, a sure indicator that it does not exist. Yet for over a century, the future of millions of children in North America has been determined partially by their IQ scores.

In the same way, many online dating sites attempt to match people by asking them questions about their habits, tastes, and preferences. By comparing your answers with other people’s, the sites claim to be able to find a match for you. The sites’ implicit claim is that the concept of attractiveness or compatibility – or incompatibility, since it is often given a value as well – can be reduced to a percentage.

Unsurprisingly, most people find the results only the roughest guide to compatibility. Aside from obvious differences such as being an atheist and a practicing Catholic, a high percentage of compatibility gives little indication of who will be attracted to whom. In fact, I have met more than one person who refuses to date someone with whom they are supposed to have 90-100% compatibility, because, counter to the implied prediction, they have found themselves uninterested in such alleged soul mates.

I have heard of at least one person who tries to get around such limitations by keeping their own records of what they think of the people they meet online. Unfortunately, though, do-it-yourself reification is no more reliable than the institutionalized version. To rely on either is to base decisions on figures with only an imaginary significance – and, in do-it-yourself reification, to have a naively exaggerated faith in your own powers of analysis. That’s fine if on-line dating is a hobby, but otherwise you might just as well rely on your horoscope.

Reification is just as much a fallacy as a non-sequitur or a post hoc argument. However, just because it deals with abstractions doesn’t mean that it’s harmless. So far as clarity of thought is concerned, it can be a serious danger.

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Since Christmas, I have been dabbling on a couple of dating sites. I’m doing so diffidently, not really looking for another relationship, but urged by friends to move past being widowed, and finding my distaste for the traditional gender roles even stronger now – if that’s possible – than when I was young. Undoubtedly, in this (as in so many things) I have the wrong attitude, but I’m not expecting much from the efforts.

One of the arguments that is supposed to justify dating sites is that you meet more people that way, and therefore you are likelier to find someone compatible. That sounds reasonable, and, for many people, probably is. But I say with neither pride nor shame – just an admission of the obvious – that in many ways I fall outside the statistical norm.

I mean, let’s stop and summarize: intellectual interests, geeky inclination. Strong interest in art and music, as well as heavy physical exercise. I can practically hear the odds of success dropping as I itemize my traits. People like me are rare, and the chances that any remotely similar woman of the right age will be hanging out on dating sites rarer still. So having a larger potential audience doesn’t help me much, because it’s the wrong audience for me.

Yet, even putting that problem aside, I’m skeptical that the techniques of the dating sites will make finding a match easier. Just because someone has similar interests doesn’t mean their temperament is compatible with mine. For example, one person might be interested in art because they have artistic ambitions – perhaps thwarted ones. Another might enjoy being a patron of the art. Still someone else might enjoy an in-depth study of artistic technique. None of these people will necessarily find each other compatible. Each might actually be abhorrent to the others.

Now multiply that by the dozens of interests and attitudes that dating sites drag out of those who sign up. Very quickly, you’re back in randomness again.

Just as importantly, the personal traits are as apt to drive people apart as together. If I were to say that any woman I find must have a deep sense of social justice, I am only telling the truth. Yet the language I’ve used is the language of the political left. From experience, I know there are conservatives and middle of the roaders with a strong sense of social justice who demonstrate their beliefs by working long hours for particular causes, many of which I could also support. Yet by my statement, I’ve probably just excluded any such people from considering me.

The same works the other way, of course. To be truthful (and there’s not much point to the whole exercise if I’m not), I have to say that I’m an agnostic. Or, as one site puts it, “neither religious nor spiritual.” This dismayed one woman, who thought it meant I had no interest in such matters, instead of simply saying that I didn’t belong to any particular organization. As a kind of pantheist, she wanted a soul mate who felt the way she did, and I sounded crippled to her, like someone tone-deaf but also somehow reprehensible.

In fact, I am widely read on the subject of religion, as well as related philosophical topics such as morality and purpose, and would be happy to discuss such subjects, at least for an evening. Yet, because of the categorization, she excluded the possibility of getting to know me – a mistake that would be far less likely were we to meet in person, because my interest in such matters would have become obvious from my conversation.

The truth is, the data that online dating sites collect isn’t much useful even to establish general preferences. If asked, I would say that I would prefer not to date a smoker. Yet I lived with a smoker for fourteen years until she quit. The same could be equally true of body type, ethnicity, or any other preference I might express. For all the insistence on scientific matching techniques (based, inevitably, on “proprietary algorithms”), dating sites simply borrow the prestige of science to justify their existence.

That leaves me to judge people by their pictures and be ashamed of my shallowness, or to make hasty decisions based on the traits I think I would prefer and what I think other people’s answers might mean. Yet for all the elaborate preparation, I’m still missing some of the essentials of attraction – how a woman moves, her body language, her conversation, her attitudes – until very late in the game. Before I can even experience such things, I have to go through a maze of arbitrary choices that, despite all rationalizations, have no better than a random chance of ensuring that I end with anyone who’s compatible. In fact, I sometimes wonder if random chance would give me a better chance of finding company for an evening, let alone someone I wanted to invite into my life. In the end, I’m only really guessing about the people with whom I’m supposed to be a match, taking part in a digital meat market which feels faintly crass.

Online dating sites often suggest that they are much more efficient than meeting someone by attending a meetup group, taking a night school course, or other traditional means of meeting people. But if you don’t meet someone by traditional means, at least you’ve had a night out and maybe learned something. By contrast, all an online site does is invite you to buy – literally — into an elusive dream of the future while giving you little hope of anything in the present. In fact, like a casino, dating sites depend on most people being unsuccessful while promoting their few chance successes to keep them coming back.

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