June 3, 2013 | 6
I met my husband at a party in a bygone era. He had no online profile. Neither did I. We didn’t trade email addresses, as neither of us had one of those either. He seemed like a good guy–and a party was as good a venue as any for meeting a future spouse. He still seems like a good guy and I rather doubt I would have done any better if I had dated online (assuming that had been an option). But I guess I’m old fashioned, as a new study suggests that, on average, we can do better if we find our spouse using a computer.
In the decades since that long-gone, offline era, people have increasingly been using the Internet to search for compatible partners. In by far the largest study of its type, social neuroscientist John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago and his colleagues report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that online meetings have resulted in a surprising number of successful marriages. From an online survey of 19,131 American adults who married between 2005 and 2012, the researchers revealed, for the first time, that a large proportion of marriages are emerging from online interactions. “I was astounded to see that over a third or marriages are now starting online. None of us knew that,” Cacioppo says.
Cacioppo’s team also found that meeting your spouse online was associated with a lower rate of marital breakups than were offline venues (5.96 versus 7.67 percent). And couples who met online also reported a higher rate of marital satisfaction than those who met without a computer intermediary. (Despite meeting online, all of the couples got together in person before they married.) The differences are slight, but meaningful. After all, where you happen to meet your spouse plays only small role in the success of a relationship. “The fact that it is significant at all and that online is superior to offline to me is surprising,” Cacioppo points out. “That breakup and marital satisfaction follow same pattern suggests that something about meeting online that is associated with better outcomes.”
The study wasn’t designed to address what that “something” might be, but possibilities include access to more potential partners online and the fact that communicating electronically has, in other studies, led to greater self-disclosure and liking of the other person. (For more about the psychology of online dating, see “How to Find Love in a Digital World,” by Eli J. Finkel, Paul W. Eastwick, Benjamin R. Karney, Harry T. Reis and Susan Sprecher, Scientific American Mind, September/October 2012.) The results cannot be explained by demographic factors such as the fact that those who met their spouse online tended to be better educated and more likely to be employed, as the scientists controlled for those influences. They could however, stem from personality factors such as being a better decision-maker, perhaps, or more ready for commitment.
Not all online—or offline—settings resulted in equal levels of marital satisfaction. Chat rooms and virtual worlds proved to be less positive places to rendezvous than were social networking and online dating sites. Cacioppo suspects that part of the difference lies in the degree to which people portray their true selves on these sites. In virtual worlds, he points out, you may have a made-up persona, whereas social media may promote greater authenticity, although he is quick to note that the study did not test this.
Among offline meeting places, marital satisfaction was greater for those who met through school, a place of worship or a social gathering (but not a bar or club) than those who first got together at work, on blind date, through a family connection or at a bar or club. Being real could play a role here, too. Blind dates and bars, after all, may encourage people to dress or act differently than they usually do. Meanwhile, other (possibly political) problems may plague the work setting or family influences.
The study was funded by EHarmony.com, which could make the results suspect. But Cacioppo insisted on safeguards. Two independent statisticians oversaw and verified the analysis of the data. In addition, the company agreed from the start that the results would be published no matter what they were, that EHarmony would not be a focus of the study, and that all data would remain public.
In defending his potential conflict of interest, Cacioppo (who is a member of the company’s advisory board) says he was open about it from the start. He believes the ends are worth the means, as long as the science is done right. “There has been very little government funding for research about love, marriage and relationships in last several decades,” he says. “It’s easy to make fun of, but it’s really important for us to understand, because we aren’t doing it very well.” Industry, he says, may be the relationship scientist’s only partner.
It is clear from this work that the landscape of dating and marriage is shifting and changing. A decade ago, people stigmatized online dating. “Poor John has to date on line. He’s such a loser,” Cacioppo quips. But few people think that way now. “Dating, or at least meeting, people online is no longer stigmatized. It is not even associated with adverse outcomes.”
Cacioppo himself, however, is an outlier. He met his coauthor and spouse, Stephanie, on a panel at a scientific conference in Shanghai two and a half years ago. “I turned to her and said, ‘If I start to snore, punch me.’” Cacioppo recalls. It wasn’t a pickup line. “It was authentic,” he says. It seemed to work. Stephanie emailed him when she returned to the University of Geneva, where she was then a faculty member. Their romance is ongoing. “We’re still on our honeymoon,” she says.