How Online Dating Can Work For You

Flippancy aside, I realize not everyone may believe in soulmates or even marriage for that matter, but whatever your intent, do you find yourself wondering if online dating even works? I know I do.
12/03/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

To be honest, I'm a skeptic when it comes to online dating. Am I supposed to believe I can find "The One" on an app like Tinder? How many Tinder swipes are necessary for me to find true love?

Flippancy aside, I realize not everyone may believe in soulmates or even marriage for that matter, but whatever your intent, do you find yourself wondering if online dating even works? I know I do.

So does it really work? Can I find my future husband, my true love? I spent the past few months examining a range of studies on online dating and marriage to see what I could find.

The short answer is, it can.

According to online dating literature, dating services can't really improve relationship outcomes. On dating sites like Match.com, which allow users to make their own dating decisions, daters have difficulty meeting the right partners. Studies show that they are unable to make successful selections.

This could be because, as humans, we have a tendency to not know what we really want. Or the fact that these sites offer too many choices. Research shows that having too many choices overwhelms us, and can cause us to make either poor decisions or no decision at all. A second reason is that online dating uses side-by-side comparisons. Instead of focusing on how compatible we think one potential partner is to us, we perform joint evaluations, which make us prioritize traits that don't really matter to relationship success.

Algorithmic matching services like eHarmony and OkCupid don't fare much better. Research shows no evidence of algorithm-based matching being effective. These algorithms focus on searchable traits that aren't predictive of relationship success (measured by long-lasting relationships and satisfaction). Searchable characteristics consist of those easily taken from a person's profile, such as age, religion, income level and race. What really matters aren't these superficial, surface-level qualities, but rather how two people interact.

John Gottman, a renown expert on marital stability and relationship success, has discovered that in predicting happy relationships, how couples resolve conflicts and whether they exhibit positive affect towards one another matters most. His research points to interactions, affect and behavior as the indicators of relationship outcomes, rather than searchable traits that these online dating services use for matching.

Despite this discouraging evidence, online dating can work for several reasons.

The sheer number of singles who use online dating services has already improved dating prospects. It's a numbers game. With so many singles online -- 11 percent of the US population as of 2013 to be exact -- the probability of meeting someone and developing a successful relationship has increased. The platform and scale brought about by these online dating sites have been a huge benefit for singles, especially those with traditionally smaller social networks.

Gian Gonzaga, senior director of research and development at eHarmony, described it as, "Imagine being in a bar and how hard it would be to find five people you might connect with. If you actually match those people in the beginning, you're increasing your odds of meeting someone ... We put people seriously looking for a relationship in one place, at the same time. So I think it's both the medium and it's the scale. And a matchmaker only knows so many people, but there are eight million or ten million users on eHarmony."

Online dating sites inherently attract singles who are seeking relationships; and with the expansive number of users, even on the basis of chance, these sites will see a large number of successful relationship formations.

Perception also plays a key role in determining relationship outcomes. When we believe a dating site can accurately match us with our most compatible partner, our likelihood of realizing success increases. Christian Rudder, the co-founder of the popular OkCupid, experimented on the users of his site to explore the influence of perception. In his experiment, he took bad matches, those who matched by 30 percent, and told them that they matched by 90 percent. When users believed they were a 90 percent match, they were more likely to contact and even like each other.

To combat the findings that argue otherwise, I've come up with a list of recommendations and insights for the next time you start clicking and swiping. This list was compiled after an extensive sweep of the findings on online dating.

Here's how online dating could work better for you:

Once you meet someone you are interested in, quickly move your conversations offline. Online communication can encourage the development of intimacy and attraction better than conventional dating when it is followed by a quick switch to face-to-face interaction.

Don't judge solely based on surface-level variables such as physical appearance--these qualities do not predict relationship satisfaction or long-term success.

Evaluate potential partners separately. It is easy to get sucked into comparing two or more people on these sites. Side-by-side comparisons lead to prioritization of irrelevant traits whereas separate evaluations allow you to more carefully think about whether each partner is a good fit.

As you get more experience in online dating, reflect on the past and learn from mishaps. More experience with online dating has been found to be predictive of relational success when daters are able to reflect on and adjust their dating strategies.

Self-disclosure leads to greater relational success as it improves intimacy and satisfaction. Self-disclosure can improve intimacy through the sharing of personal information. It provides users with more information about their potential partners, allowing for better decision-making.