Last Updated: March 27th, 2019

The following article is excerpted from The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter by Susan Pinker, a book that explains, from a scientific and sociological perspective, why building and maintaining in-person relationships is still important in this age of increasing online communication. 

I confess that I have occasionally acted as a behind-the-scenes social connector. Having watched many of my single friends struggle to meet partners, I introduced a longtime writer friend to one of my former newspaper editors, a delightful fellow who had suddenly found himself single again. As if to illustrate the power of three degrees, I then received this email from a friend of my writer friend:

Jan, at whose party we met a while ago, mentioned that you occa­sionally ventured into matchmaking, and from her latest report she and Bruce are coming along very nicely. And that’s why I’m writing to you. I would love you to help me find a match. Let me know when we can talk and I can tell you everything I’ve tried.

We met at my local café on a rainy afternoon. Like millions of other people around the globe, one thing she’d tried was on-line dating—venturing into the questionnaire-heavy waters of PlentyOfFish (POF), eHarmony, OkCupid, and Yahoo Friends. Her best prospect, “Vic,” whom she’d met on POF, seemed promis­ing after some online and telephone banter, jibing nicely with her list of requirements: over six feet tall; currently employed; no health problems; liked the arts and, in particular, photography. But she ulti­mately discovered that he was mainly interested in phone sex. “I kept saying, ‘Tell me where you are and I’ll meet you.’ But he wasn’t inter­ested in a face-to-face. All he wanted to know was, ‘What room are you in now? Why don’t you describe your sheets to me?’ And that’s the thing about online dating. You can have the most wonderful email exchanges, but then the guy doesn’t turn out to be who he says he is.”

If there’s one constant on the Internet, it’s dissimulation. On Sec­ond Life, for example, your (much more attractive) digital avatar can have an affair with another avatar, or a one-off with a virtual prosti­tute. Catching him doing just that is what sparked David Pollard’s wife, Amy Taylor, to file for divorce in 2008. The British couple had met online and married—twice. First their avatars married; the well-toned, topcoat-and medallion-wearing “Dave Barmy” wedded “Laura Skye,” a svelte and busty six-foot-tall DJ clad in a skintight purple gown. Their vows were exchanged on a tropical fantasy island. Somewhat later, the flesh-and-blood couple married in real life, at the more lacklustre registry office in Cornwall. But when Taylor, an unemployed waitress originally from London, woke from a nap one afternoon to find Pollard’s avatar having virtual sex with a prostitute on Second Life, it was the beginning of the end of their real-world marriage. “It’s cheating as far as I’m concerned, but he didn’t see it as a problem and couldn’t see why I was so upset,” Taylor told The Times of London.

Bizarre as this tale is, it illustrates the ease with which people blur fact and fiction in cyberspace. This is especially true of online dating sites, where most people lie about themselves, some shading the truth just a little, others quite a lot. Ron James, who over an 18-month period emailed six hundred women he had “met” through JDate (ultimately dating 40 to 50 of them), discovered that many of the women had lied about their ages, posted old photos, and mis­represented what they did for a living. “I learned to watch out for sunglasses,” James said.

“Four out of five people misrepresent themselves,” Eli Finkel, a Northwestern University psychology professor, told me after he had analyzed all the science on online dating he could find. One of the studies, led by Catalina Toma at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, surveyed 80 online daters. After they had created their profiles, the researchers followed up with a tape measure, a scale, and a request to see their driver’s licenses. The results? Eighty-one per­cent of the online daters had fibbed, inaccurately reporting their basic details in ways they hoped wouldn’t be detected (women made themselves eight and a half pounds thinner, on average). Together with several colleagues, Finkel conducted several lab experiments that mimicked the main features of online dating. In the process he happened on some unsettling findings. “Women are heavier than their profiles say they are. Men are a bit shorter and have fewer resources than they say they do. But the biggest problem,” he said, “is not that people mis­represent themselves, but that we’re not very good at describing what attracts us. When you meet someone you’re attracted to, you just don’t have the insight about why.”

Sexual attraction is a lot like what they say about art. Or wine. Or porn. You can’t put into words what you like about it, but you know it when you see it. One of Finkel’s experiments asked 106 research subjects to come up with three essential traits in an ideal romantic partner. They also asked for three of the least important or least de­sired qualities in a mate. Would you absolutely require your future beloved to be ambitious? Affectionate? Broadminded? Generous?
It was a lot like what dating sites ask of us—to describe ex­actly what we want. “You fill out a bunch of questionnaires about an ideal partner, then later you encounter something like that person. We rigged it so that the person matches or mismatches your ideal mate,” is how Finkel explained his experiment.

The results showed that their university-aged subjects were pre­dictably keen to meet someone whose profile matched their must-have criteria—at least on paper. But when they were actually thrown together in a room with that perfect match, the subjects weren’t all that attracted to their dreamboats. In a live, face-to-face situation, their criteria didn’t predict who they found hot any more than their list of “avoids” predicted revulsion. It turns out that most of us don’t know who will turn us on any more than we can predict what will make us happy in the future.

Susan Pinker is a developmental psychologist, columnist and broadcaster who writes about social science. Her first book, The Sexual Paradox, was published in 17 countries and was awarded the William James Book Award by the American Psychological Association. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The Times of London, the BBC, the CBC, The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, The Financial Times, Der Spiegel, and NBC’s Today Show. She lives in Montreal.

From the book THE VILLAGE EFFECT: HOW FACE TO FACE CONTACT CAN MAKE US HEALTHIER, HAPPIER, AND SMARTER by Susan Pinker.  Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Pinker.

image: Woman laughing via Shutterstock