Are Online Daters Spoilt for Choice?

Many years ago, I asked my grandfather why he didn’t seem to talk much to my grandmother. She, along with most of my extended family, were within earshot. A brief silence ensued, then a mixture of muffled and uproarious laughter. Using my obviously highly-tuned social sensitivity, I decided to pose a less embarrassing question to my grandfather, “How did you and grandma meet?” He told me in his Hakka-accented Mandarin that it was partly arranged by relatives and marriages then were a very different affair.

I can’t help but recall his reply (and unfortunately, the preceding social mishap) when thinking about the increasing prevalence of online dating and its impact on today’s society. 20-to-30-year-olds now have access to thousands of possible dating partners, a privilege traditionally available only to royalty and movie stars. But does having more choices actually lead to long-term happiness? Dating apps often tout their number of users as a selling point. That may work in attracting signups, but as we shall see, too many choices may actually lead to lower satisfaction over time.

Do more choices equate to higher chances of success? These popular dating sites certainly want potential users to think so. Sources: badoo.com, plentyoffish.com, tinder.com.

I personally know two married couples who started off online. From what I know, all parties involved might not have registered their accounts looking for a life partner, but they were certainly looking for a serious relationship. These online daters with a purpose are in the right place—dating apps can be very useful if you know what you’re looking for, or at least, what you’re not looking for. The online daters who are open to anything, on the other hand, are more likely to end up with nothing or a series of suboptimal decisions when they get nudged by the dating apps. Lest we forget, dating apps want a healthy userbase, and one way of ensuring that is to keep their users, well, using their services.

Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar wrote in The Paradox of Choice and The Art of Choosing respectively about how the abundance of choice actually leads to poorer or even no decision making. Most of their cited examples included supermarket purchases but it’s easy to imagine that their arguments will be even more pertinent to the extremely high-involvement and high-risk decision that’s the search for a romantic partner. Even Match.com, a leading online dating brand owned by the same holding company that also owns OkCupid and Tinder, has published an article on the paradox of choice in online dating.

Having more dating options also means having more backup options. This apparent abundance magnifies a prospective partner’s minor flaws; what used to be an annoyance is now a dealbreaker. Even after “going official “, it’s easy to wonder if there’s someone better waiting in your inbox. Indeed, one common question in the early phases of online-turned-real relationships is, “So…do you still have your account?”

The “wandering eye” mindset seems almost logical when there are such low costs of searching for a partner. After all, human beings are inclined to get the best they can get. But when you combine that with the media-perpetuated myth of “The One” that still plagues many minds, one might expect the current generation to have more but shorter romantic relationships. One experiment relevant to this claim was performed by Jonathan D’Angelo and Catalina Toma (2016). Participants who had to choose one out of 24 dating profiles to date and had the option of changing their choice, ended up exercising that option more than those who were only exposed to 6 dating profiles. Furthermore, the participants with 24 choices reported less satisfaction than those with 6. Interestingly, the option of changing dates had no impact on reported satisfaction levels.

Another implication one might infer from the experiment is that people exposed to less dating choices and have no option of reversing their choice might end up having the most stable and satisfactory marriages. Let’s return to the topic of arranged marriages. Specifically, in India, where arranged marriages are still the norm and divorces are still stigmatised. Relatively few marriages in India end in a divorce or separation, compared to non-arranged marriages (somewhat ironically and amusingly referred to as “love marriages”) in most parts of the world, and especially compared to North America and Europe. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, of course. There’s a heavier component of social and economic survival for the women in Indian marriages. Domestic abuse remains a rampant social issue. But even after taking those factors into consideration, arranged marriages don’t end prematurely as much as we might think.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_demography

Perhaps more tellingly, couples in arranged marriages have been measured to be as satisfied as those in love marriages. Some sources have even measured arranged marriages to be more satisfactory than love marriages as the years roll on. It’s common to hear about learning to tolerate the other person in successful marriages, for nobody can be truly perfect the way you want him or her to be. Hence, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that married individuals with the “plenty of fish in the sea” mindset might have less incentive to do so, linking back to my point about the magnification of minor flaws into dealbreakers. While on the other hand, there’s almost a sense of “settling for what you have” in arranged marriages, which would sound nightmarish to the young generations who’ve been told that they can have it all.

So, I’m certainly not advocating for the spread of arranged marriages in Singapore. And I’m certainly not advocating for some sort of control over dating apps but it seems that for some, too much of something is not enough. Unnecessary Spice Girls reference aside, the topic of dating choice quantity is worth thinking about. My grandparents, like many couples of their generation, are still together without drama after more than half a century. We may not be able to replicate their sociocultural environment (and not that it’s worth doing so), but recognising the importance of choice quantity may lead us to more effective behavioural-guided campaigns, or at least for when the topic of dating inevitably arises in between drinks.