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Data Overload on Dating Sites

The information overload caused by too much choice could have lessons for other websites.

Consumers can find more of what they want on the Web, but that may not always be such a good thing. New research about online dating sites shows that users presented with too many choices experience “cognitive overload” and make poorer decisions as a result. The findings could have implications for other kinds of websites, although new technologies and approaches could help address the problem, researchers suggest.

Dating sites are big business. According to a survey conducted in 2006 by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life, over 37% of all single Web users have tried them. Dating sites frequently resemble e-commerce sites such as; users enter search criteria such as height, appearance, and religion and are presented with a set of matches.

Pai-Lu Wu from Cheng Shiu University and Wen-Bin Chiou from the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan performed an experiment that involved giving online date-seekers varying numbers of search results to their queries on dating sites. Their study, published last month in the journal Cyberpsychology and Behavior, shows that having more search results leads to a less careful partner choice.

Chiou calls this a “double-edged sword,” since people desire a wider selection, but then devote less time to evaluating each prospect. Wu and Chiou conclude that “more search options lead to less selective processing by reducing users’ cognitive resources, distracting them with irrelevant information, and reducing their ability to screen out inferior options.” In other words, when faced with cognitive overload, date-seekers evaluated as many matches as possible, even ones that weren’t a good fit, and they were less able to distinguish a good option from a bad one.

Michael Norton, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, coauthored a study published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing last year that suggests that this kind of cognitive overload is common on dating sites. His study found that the average date-seeker typically spends nearly 12 hours a week searching online and emailing for a payoff of less than two hours of offline dating. Norton says that date seekers “evaluate each person only superficially, never investing the time and energy to explore whether a match might work.” Having too many options raises our expectations of potential matches too high, leading to an “often fruitless search for an ideal person who may not exist.” Incessant browsing for Mr. or Ms. Right may be exactly the wrong decision, Norton says.

The problem clearly extends well beyond dating sites. “Anytime you get on the Web, there is the danger of cognitive overload,” says Nicole Ellison, a professor at Michigan State University who studies online relationships and dating. Ellison believes that the sheer amount of information online presents a challenge to users, although search engines such like Google have proven effective for sorting through the simplest types of information. “Google already has a pretty sophisticated algorithm,” she says. “We know that few people go past the first page of results when searching.”

When searching for more complex, subjective information, such as the ideal holiday destination, however, Web users may experience similar cognitive overload and make equally rushed choices.

As for dating sites, Chiou suggests a few technical solutions that could help. Users could be reminded of the number of profiles they have reviewed already, and told how closely a profile matches their own. Ellison’s research suggests that collecting more interview data also helps refine searches and produce more relevant results. “Including different kinds of questions in the profile would be helpful–questions that allow individuals to highlight unique aspects of their personality,” Ellison says.

Norton goes further, suggesting that prospective dates should not be searched for “as though they were shoes online.” Simple demographic variables such as height and religion have poor relevance to whether a romantic pairing will be successful, he says. Better predictors of relationship success are concepts such as humor and rapport. Unfortunately, these are highly subjective–one person’s joke can be another’s bad taste.

A startup called Omnidate hopes to profit from technologies that help users gather and evaluate this kind of subjective information. The company’s solution is an add-on for existing dating sites that allows users to interact as avatars in a 3-D virtual space. Rather than waste time with pages of matches with meaningless information, users can evaluate qualities that are only revealed during a meeting.

“As people chat, their characters respond naturally, providing a realistic dating experience,” says Omnidate’s president Igor Kotlyar. He adds that women are particularly pleased with the virtual experience. They comprise 60% of the site’s registrations (twice that of a typical dating site) and prefer virtual dates to email exchanges.

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