The Psychology of Dating




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In this age of rationality and endless data, intuition is often looked upon as an inferior means of problem-solving. Yet in many situations, even in the hard sciences, it is the most useful means of all. “I believe in intuitions and inspirations… I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am,” remarked Albert Einstein before his theory of relativity was tested and confirmed as the basis of a new way of looking at the world.

The value of intuition is underplayed in many areas of life, nowhere less so than in online dating. Most dating websites are engines of algorithmic-powered rationality. For example, they require you to describe yourself in words (your characteristics and interests, loves and hates); to sum up the attributes of the sort of person you’d like to be with (fun-loving? bookish? likes owls?); to fill out various personality and psychometric profiles; and generally to ruminate a great deal about your path to a fulfilling relationship.

The psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West (and, more recently, Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) call this kind of approach to problem-solving “system 2”. It is slow, deliberative and analytical, a product of our (relatively) recently evolved prefrontal cortex; it enables us to make complex computations, and to direct our attention at particular tasks.

System 1, by contrast, is fast, automatic and emotion-led, driven by far older neural circuits; it operates automatically and with little sense of agency. System 1 is intuition. Effective decision-making requires both systems – but sometimes it is better to use one over the other.

Take dating. In the real (offline) world, sussing out a potential partner is – at least in the beginning – indisputably a system 1 activity. Humans are remarkably adept at navigating complex social worlds and instinctively picking up on familiar signs that might indicate compatibility. As a species we’ve been doing this for millions of years; as individuals all our lives. Walk into a room full of people and it won’t take you long to pick out those who appeal to you, based on the colour of their shirt, the style of their shoes, how they speak, or the countless other indicators that work beneath our conscious awareness.

This is intuition in over-drive. Try deliberating your way through all those social signals and weighing them up based on their individual merits and you’ll end up making some strange choices, or going home single. Curious, then, that this is exactly what many dating sites compel us to do.

Thinking carefully about our dream date, and about our own personality, and allowing an algorithm to compute a match, may be an intriguing exercise. But as Eli Finkel at Northwestern University and colleagues have shown, it isn’t that helpful. Not only is it difficult to guess what others will find attractive in us, but we also can’t be sure what we really want in our partners until we meet them.

Is there a way around it? I have a vested interest in that question. In January, I launched a new dating site called 21Pictures which tries to use insights from psychology to create a more intuitive experience, where daters can make the most of their hard-wired social intelligence when choosing a partner. It’s based on research I did for my book The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do, published by Oneworld this week. Although 21Pictures is a fully functional dating site, it is also a social experiment, since it offers various new approaches that haven’t really been tried before.

The main “intuition hack” on 21Pictures – as you may already have guessed – is to get people to describe themselves in pictures; not just a series of head shots, but pictures from all aspects of their lives. The idea is to make it easier for users to grasp, intuitively, what someone is really like, as they might in the real world; to allow them to use all their social smarts to pick out hints of compatibility and familiarity. So a person’s profile might feature a shot of their bookcase, say, or their favourite coffee shop, their pet, some photos from their travels, a poster of a favourite film, and so on. The effect is to evoke a sense of someone, rather than an algorithmic representation of them.

Intuitively building an idea of a person from snapshots of their life – “thin-slicing” as it is known in psychology – is the next best thing when you can’t actually meet them face-to-face. There’s plenty of science behind it.

Psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas, who studies how people form impressions of others from cues in their environment, has found that someone’s possessions can teach us more about them than a direct conversation, and more even than what their friends or colleagues might say about them. If you’re seeking to “read” someone from pictures of their apartment, Gosling’s research can help you. He’s discovered, for instance, that a messy desk does not necessarily denote a messy mind, or even a creative one: variety of reading material is more telling than quantity.

The point of our social experiment on 21Pictures is to prime people’s dating instincts and encourage them to go with their hunches on just these kinds of cues. We hope to learn, among other things, what kind of pictures give the best insights, what content users most readily connect with, and what someone’s choice of pictures says about them. We’d also like to know if users, when given the opportunity to delve more deeply into people’s lives (rather than just swiping through a series of head shots), spend more time considering individual profiles, and are more satisfied and ultimately more successful if they have fewer profiles to browse (as predicted by numerous studies).

The actor and science communicator Alan Alda has spoken of the need at times for us to:

“…leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”

Apply that to dating and perhaps what you’ll discover is someone you actually like. The research I’ve looked at suggests that in this domain at least, you’re more likely to succeed if you follow the Alda route.

References

Stanovich, K., & West, R. (2000). Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23 (5), 645-665 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X00003435

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Gillath, O., Bahns, A., Ge, F., & Crandall, C. (2012). Shoes as a source of first impressions Journal of Research in Personality, 46 (4), 423-430 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2012.04.003

Selfhout, M., Denissen, J., Branje, S., & Meeus, W. (2009). In the eye of the beholder: Perceived, actual, and peer-rated similarity in personality, communication, and friendship intensity during the acquaintanceship process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 (6), 1152-1165 DOI: 10.1037/a0014468

Finkel, E., Eastwick, P., Karney, B., Reis, H., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13 (1), 3-66 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612436522

Gosling, S. (2008). Snoop: What your stuff says about you. Basic Books

Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (6), 995-1006 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.79.6.995

Image via Sangoiri / Shutterstock.

Michael Bond, BSc

Michael Bond, BSc, is a writer specializing in psychology and human behavior. He holds a degree in natural science from Durham University in England. He is the author of The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do (Oneworld, 2015). He is a consultant with New Scientist, where he used to be senior editor. He is also the founder of the dating site 21Pictures, which applies insights from social psychology to online dating.
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