Can the sharp reasoning skills of the left brain, and our growing foundation of scientific knowledge, actually shed light on the oh-so-right-brained flights of the romantic heart? The science-lover in me likes to think so. And a growing community of scientists increasingly thinks so too.
In the next three columns, I’m going to take a departure from my usual content of answering readers’ letters and share highlights of these three articles.
(Article 1 of 3 in the series)
The style section of the Nov. 13, 2011, New York Times opened with a headline too juicy to ignore: “Love, Lies, and What They Learned: Online Dating is Allowing Scientists to Explore the Age-Old Question: Why Do People Fall in Love?”
The scientist who definitively answers that question, of course, will secure a patent and enjoy her retirement in the lap of gluttony on some glorious tropical island. (She, along with the Guy Who Found Jimmy Hoffa’s Body and The Woman Who Knows For Sure What Happens When We Die. An elite club, to be sure.)
The impossibility of this question aside, though, it turns out that in the 15-some years since the first caveman logged onto an Internet dating site trying to find love – there have been legions of scientific observers watching every click he made. Triangulating and cross-checking observations. Laughing, I’m sure, at our e-shenanigans over cocktails at the local pub.
As the author of the article, Stephanie Rosenbloom, put it: “There are millions of Americans seeking love on the Internet. Little do they know that teams of scientists are eagerly watching them trying to find out.”
So, what exactly, have they found? Here, in a nutshell of a nutshell, is what Rosenbloom reports:
A professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Berkeley named Gerald Mendelsohn has conducted research on 1 million online profiles. Other scientists have done lots of crunching with this (and other) data. It’s estimated that today, about 21 percent of heterosexual couples and 61 percent of same-sex couples met online. Two important maxims have emerged.
• Your mother was wrong. Opposites do NOT attract.
• George Washington was wrong too. Honesty is not always the best policy. (If the reference is hydroplaning over your head, Google “George Washington” and “cherry tree”!)
The fact too much candor seems to backfire on people is probably just as well, since plenty of people are playing putty with the truth.
• Profile pictures tend to be about 1.5 years old.
• Women describe themselves as 8.5 pounds thinner than they really are.
• Men describe themselves as 2 pounds lighter than they are. But they lie in far greater magnitude about their height, rounding up half an inch. “Apparently,” Rosenbloom quipped, “every bit counts.”
On some instinctive level, we all seem to know that everyone else is lying. Heck, maybe it’s not even fair to call it instinct. Maybe it’s just lessons learned. As one guy interviewed in the research noted, “If I say I am 44, people think I am 48.” People seem to bridge the gap between their ideal self and their real self by describing themselves optimistically.
I am not, for the record, endorsing this reality. I had a 100 percent, all-truth all-the time approach to my own profile, and I believe it’s the only way to go. Research shows, however, that I was somewhat alone in this belief.
• More than 80 percent of online contacts by white daters were to other white daters; only 3 percent were to black daters.
• Black daters were 10 times more likely to write whites than the other way around.
• In-race dating is more important to women than men. It is also more important to “the older” than “the younger.” People claim to be open to other-race dating, but their behavior proves otherwise.
• Women want men who are tall and wealthy and slightly overweight (really!?! )
• Men prefer women who are slightly underweight (thanks a lot, Barbie!) and who don’t tower over them.
• Women rank income as more important than physical attributes; for men, that’s less true.
• Most people shy away from stating political views in their profiles – but that looks like a big mistake. It may attract more dates, but long marriages tend to be among partners with similar political ideologies.
What This Means To You
My takeaways from all this begin with a big fat caveat: Dating research is in its infancy. The conclusions scientists will reach in the future may differ drastically from what they are today, so don’t be surprised if one day, they conclude the exact opposite of what I have summarized here.
Two, human beings and the societies we create are constantly changing. We The People are like amoebas; morphing and moving all the time. So don’t cling onto these generalities with a death grip. And try not to apply general truths to any one particular individual.
Is that woman you’ve been swapping e-mails with really as thin as she said she is? Is that man really as “comfortable” as he craftily, indirectly tries to imply in his profile?
Maybe or maybe not. Quit writing, log off and go out on a date already! There is so little to lose and so much to gain. Maybe, once you meet, pounds and dollars won’t matter quite as much as you think they do.
Speaking for myself, I married not for money, nor for beauty, but for nice. And I’ve never looked back.
This is part one of a three-part series summarizing recent media articles reporting on scientific research into dating and marriage. To read part 2 of this series, click here. To read part 3 of this series, click here.