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Looking for Love in All the Web Places

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With Valentine's Day upon us, there are some interesting conclusions to note from soon-to-be-published research regarding that most 21st-century of romantic developments: the dating website.

In this past weekend's New York Times Sunday Review, psychologists Eli Finkel and Benjamin Karney provide a preview of their article to appear in this month's issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. The title of the Times column tells their story succinctly: "The Dubious Science of Online Dating."

Finkel and Karney aren't suggesting that anything is wrong with dating online. In fact, data indicate that online dating activity is at an all-time high and has shed much of the stigma that used to be associated with it. As of 2009, they report, 22 percent of heterosexual couples had met online, a number that jumps to a whopping 61 percent for same-sex couples.

But what the researchers do take issue with is the notion that dating websites successfully use compatibility analyses, matching algorithms and other mathematical formulae to predict attraction and, ultimately, relationship satisfaction. While successful relationships can and do flourish among those who meet online, they suggest that there's no evidence to indicate that these websites are able to predict compatibility with anywhere near the reliability often touted (and paid for by users).

In short, it's not that online dating is a bad way to meet potential partners, but it appears to be no better than more traditional venues that make no claims regarding scientific rigor, like meeting at a bar or being set up by friends. Simply put, dating websites aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Why is the science behind these website algorithms suspect? There are multiple explanations, including people's inability to accurately self-assess when it comes to the characteristics they desire in a mate and the fact that many of the best predictors of relationship satisfaction (e.g., communication style, sexual compatibility) can't be diagnosed until people have actually gotten to know each other.

But yet one more reason for the limitations of dating website algorithms is that -- stop me, regular readers of this blog, if you've heard this one before -- they typically fail to account for one of the most important influences on human nature: context.

As Finkel and Karney write: "Dating sites don't take into account the environment surrounding the relationship." And they go on to cite various external forces that have been found to be important predictors of how relationships go-external considerations like job status, financial stress, infertility and physical health.

But before you even get to pondering how environment and context impact a relationship, you also have to consider the ways in which these factors shape attraction to begin with. And that's not something we tend to do naturally.

As an example, I recently asked one of my undergraduate classes the following question: "What attracts you to someone?" Specifically, I asked them to list the first three factors that came to mind when thinking about their own feelings of attraction.

All told, 50 percent of responses stuck to physical characteristics (including several not suitable for reproduction here if I hope to avoid an NC-17 rating). Another 47 percent of responses focused on personality traits: "Sense of humor" was the most popular, followed closely by "intelligent" and "warm."

Just 3 percent of answers had anything to do with context -- such as whether they had recently ended another relationship. Or how much their friends like the prospective mate.

But contextual considerations like these do matter when it comes to attraction. As do seemingly prosaic factors like geographical proximity, familiarity and reciprocity (i.e., once you learn someone else has a thing for you, it makes you feel more drawn to that person too).

This isn't the picture of attraction and love painted by the supposedly scientific dating website, however. The very idea that mathematical equations can spit out the profile of your perfect partner grows out of the assumption that with love, as with much of life, the key to understanding human nature is finding the right combination of personality characteristics. But people are more complicated than that -- we're greater than the sum of our apparent traits.

So this Valentine's Day, go ahead and make use of the latest technology when looking for love. After all, the internet is a highly efficient and effective way to expand your pool of potential dating partners beyond the confines of local environment. But do so with the realistic expectation that finding that special someone doesn't magically (or scientifically) get easier simply because you're online. Cupid's hit rate is about the same in cyberspace as it is on terra firma.

For more by Sam Sommers, click here.

For more on relationships, click here.

For more on love, click here.

Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's new book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below: