#tomorrow13: Dan Ariely on online dating & the ideal BMI to snag a man

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What is it about online dating makes us roll our eyes?

The lying? The misunderstanding? The misleading profile pics?

At a panel at the Israel Presidential Conference today, Professor Dan Ariely, famed and beloved behavioral economics expert, presented what he’s found are the major issues with the online dating platform, and how it could be improved.

Online dating makes people boring

Ariely said his team was given access to loads of data – communications between online daters. They thought they hit the jackpot! Until they read through it.

Turns out, online dating correspondence is boring.

Ariely chalked it up to two possibilities:

  1. When you let people talk about anything, they choose boring, easy things
  2. Actually, we just don’t know how to talk to people – so we bring it to the lowest common denominator and talk about the most basic topic: your personal CV.

The problem is, we usually take the safest option when it comes to other people. Think about a couple online daters choosing a restaurant or where to have coffee.

His team created their own online dating ‘platform’ in which people were restricted to 20 conversational questions, all different, all interesting: Why did you break up from your previous relationship? Are there crazy people in the family? What’s your sexual fantasy?

Everyone was happier: the askers were more interested and the answerers were happy to talk about something other than parroting their resumes.

What attributes make some people successful at online dating?

In economics, this area is called labor analysis. For instance, it’s often discussed how some people can get higher salaries compared to other attributes, like height, weight, education, etc.

Similarly, Ariely’s team took into account the  attributes of daters against their salaries, and desirability. What makes someone more attractive as an online profile? Which attributes make some successful in their communications in online dating?

Turns out, women really care about men’s height.

How much more money would a man have to earn a year to be as attractive as someone an inch taller? It would take a yearly salary hike of $40,000!

A basic flaw of the online dating interface helps people search for partners based on exaggerated superficiality – superficial attributes – like height.

By the way – Ariely found that online dating men really care about women’s BMI – ideally measuring at a nearly anorexic 19. And how much do women need to earn to be one BMI point higher?

For men, it makes no difference.

What happens when we convey superficial information about ourselves?

On average, as we learn more about people, we like them less. When we’re missing info about a person, our brains fill in the gaps in over-optimistic ways – so when we do meet for coffee, we get disappointed.

Obvious fact: Women get more disappointed than men – and never seem to learn.

So what can we do to improve the online dating platform?

Ariely has tremendous hope for online dating. It’s complex to find a partner to fall in love and spend the rest of life with. Online dating is supposed to help, after the match maker disappeared. Ariely found that for every six hours spent on online dating – searching profiles, corresponding – on average, people get one coffee. It’s not a great trade-off: it’s like driving to Eilat and back for a cup of coffee with someone that doesn’t work out.

To improve the online dating process, it’s worth looking at dating in the real world. It doesn’t look like an interview. You go outside the framework to experience something together. When we experience together, we can reflect on the other person in a better way.

So Ariely’s team created a virtual world in which online daters went on ‘dates’ to  virtual spots, like museums, parks, etc. Then they had something to talk about in their online communication, other than interview questions. That actually doubled the probability of going on a second date.

In India, Ariely studied the happiness levels of love marriages and arranged marriages. He found that the love marriages start happier, but decline, and the arranged marriages do the opposite. The crossover between the two? Year three of marriage.

The online dating market is trying to help people experience dating like they do in the real world, but with a major inherent flaw: online dating profiles are structured to be easy for computers to process – attributes, like height, gender, job – and not how people actually process other people.

Ariely likens it to wine vs digital cameras: We taste wine, and we know we like it but may not be able to list the exact reasons why. Digital cameras, though, have measurable specs.

So whether you’re an online dating platform programmer, or a starry-eyed hopeful seeking romance, Dan Ariely would like us to consider: we humans, as opposed to our computers, relate to experience goods, not information goods.

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