Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The 7 Fatal Flaws That Kill Any Hope That Online Dating Will Work The Way We All Want It To

The principal reasons online dating can't work, in reverse order of impact:
7.  Click-Delete
6.  The Age Box 
5.  Mole-Hill Mountains
4.  Hope Springs Eternal
3.  "SQUIRREL!"
2.  Don't Trust Instincts That Don't Exist!
1.  Storytelling
The details follow further down...

The online dating 'deck' is stacked against ALL of us!

Some time back I penned a post explaining the simple human insight that prevents online dating from working at successfully connecting majority of ADULTS who have become particular over time about the type of person they'd seriously consider for a new partner (click for link to post): the process unconsciously and uncontrollably raises our expectations to unrealistic heights that the initial face-to-face 'coffee date' can rarely deliver upon.

I don't say this to be negative, ladies!  I'm just curious and analytical by nature and, after a couple of years of trying it, found myself mystified as to why, more often than not, for both myself and most people over 35 who have tried it, that first 'coffee date' doesn't lead to a real date.  I mean, we all put a LOT of effort into checking out each others photos, likes/dislikes, etc., but the 'chemistry' is SO much more elusive with online dating than with dates that have not been set up online.  As is the case with most things that get in the way of people interacting, the core stumbling block is usually NOT all that complicated, it's usually due to a simple quirk of human nature.

Yes, we are complicated creatures (I'm not suggesting otherwise!).  Yes there are always nuances and subtleties that effect our social intercourse, so I won't presume to reduce it down to a single human insight, hence with a many months of online-initiated dates behind me and many debates with friends about the subject, I will offer up a few more stumbling blocks that, when considered together, point to the fact that online dating is unlikely to ever become the replacement for the bar scene (or regular attendance the religious center of your choosing) that adult singles collectively hoped it was going to be.

[There is one thing that Internet Dating delivers that makes it HUGELY valuable, and that is exposure to singles we would never get exposure to without it.  The downside is that the 7 Fatal Flaws make it extremely difficult to actually meet any individuals you find interesting, much less get to date #2 with them.]

Note that the success stories you hear about inevitably come from only a few select sources:
Now I'm not out to destroy anyone's hopes and dreams, here, but as a marketing strategist with a couple of decades of experience behind me, I can tell you that the online dating industry is built upon leveraging one simple human trait, and it is most definitely NOT the desire for companionship!  Yes, the latter is the innate desire that initially brings us to the table, but what makes us continue to pay and come back is both our human propensity to become addicted/habituated to things that are pleasurable (the rush we get from "You've got mail!") and the fact that our big brains and inherently social nature makes us 'storytellers'.  We're such inveterate storytellers that we'll not only believe the 'hope-generating' stories others tell us ("The Secret" to success in life is thinking positive), we'll happily (and unconsciously) make up our own stories in our heads and believe those too!  ("Oh, he/she looks like my first love AND likes hot sauce -- I think this one is going to be the next 'The One'!")

Until someone invents a seamlessly functional "ChatRoulette" for adult singles (click for link) that always starts with a group of people's webcam images on a single screen -- with all of them standing at a distance from the camera (the way we naturally start out noticing potential partners in real life) -- online dating is not going to improve.  Why not?  Well OK, but only because you asked!


Online Dating's 7 Fatal Flaws

7.  Click-Delete

Click to enlarge.
One of the biggest overall issues facing the Internet's effectiveness as a dating tool is the fact that we are first and foremost visual creatures.  We are attracted to each other based not solely upon looks, but upon a thousand subtle cues we pick up visually, at a distance.  Online all we have to go on is a few thumbnail photos (and often our egos won't even allow us to post one!).  What this drives us to do is 'click-delete' on dozens (which soon become hundreds) of potential partners we'd consider if we met them in real life.  That sales rep who has been visiting your workplace for 4 months -- you didn't pay him any attention the first three times you saw him, but then you heard him talking to the receptionist about XYZ and suddenly you took a second look at him and thought "Hm, I'd date him if he asked."  Some people look great in real life, but just aren't photogenic -- online they're all now in our trash bins.

6.  The Age Box

I'd venture out on a limb and say that, most of the time, when we meet someone in real life who makes our eyebrows lift unconsciously, our next thought is NEVER "If he/she is not between xx and xx years of age, I will not communicate.", yet online it is the second thing that leads us to automatically click-delete.  Really.  If you met an enormous percentage of the people who's profiles are in your trash bin in real life, you just might give them a go, but online with a flick of your finger and without a second thought they will never get the chance to make you laugh, intrigue you and surprise you later with how young or old they are.  No, not all of them, but more than you'd expect.

5.  Mole-Hill Mountains

"My ex liked X, I HATE my ex! YOU like X?!?"  "She likes country music, I HATE country music!"  Etc.  While in real life it might take from 2 to 10 dates to find out the other person is into something we're not (or we find out 3 minutes in, but we're so focused on trying to suppress a sudden urge to seduce the ravishing creature in front of us that it wouldn't matter if they are, in fact, the devil incarnate),  online we can see all kinds of stupid, ultimately trivial and unimportant things immediately.  Maybe the guy is brilliant, funny and sexy, but has dyslexia -- it doesn't matter, you hate imperfection, you interpret poor spelling to be representative of such, and into the trash bin he goes never to be re-considered.  Sad, really.
“People who attempt to make the 'perfect' choice, whether it comes to buying a car or finding a partner, end up less satisfied, regardless of what or who they choose. That’s because they tend to look for flaws, and become disillusioned with all of their options," says Andy Trees, Ph.D., author of "A Scientific Guide to Successful Dating." 
This is from a short piece on CNN re: the risk that is inherent in online dating just because of how it works (link to post).

4.  Hope Springs Eternal

"Ooo!  She/he is cute!  Maybe he/she'll reply..." In the real world, we find out almost immediately if that person we find cute thinks we are cute.  We look at them, we meet their eye and either their eyebrows go up and they look us up and down and smile, or they look away and never meet our gaze again.  End of story.  With online we have to endure the pain of death by a thousand cuts, sending out winks and witty one-liners only to get no response to most of them.  Out in the real world we do this subliminal 'questioning-flirting' every day face-to-face, but somehow it is far less hurtful offline when they just don't meet our eye again, or even if they smile and make polite small talk, only to let us know by their reactions (or ours after we get up close) that the attraction is not mutual.  Online we invest an incredible amount of mental and emotional energy pursuing people who might be interested in us if we met them face-to-face, but will never reply to our winks online due to the points above.  Because we put more energy and thought into online flirts, it hurts more when they evoke no response and eventually becomes soul-crushing.  If any of us put the same amount of energy into flirting with others in real life, we'd be guaranteed of more positive feedback!

Further, the very concept of online dating fires up our 'hope engine' in ways we can't even articulate!  The idea that this new-fangled (and therefore filled with 'mystique') technology is going to deliver us a new partner who is IDEAL (because upfront we can 'vet' their appearance, size, likes/dislikes, age, interest in kids, religious affiliations and even their personality type via online testing!!!), that 'marketing promise' is just too mind-boggling seductive for most of us to resist becoming enthralled.

3.  "SQUIRREL!"

In Pixar's "UP" Dug the talking dog's attention gets instantaneously diverted in mid-sentence by his brain's interest in other things.  What online dating does for humans is similar.  This hottie or that hunk seem EXTREMELY interesting today, but a week from now, with winks and emails and IM's sent to or received from 20 other people, plus perhaps a coffee date yesterday, then a weekend wedding at which you will kiss the friend of a friend as a further demonstration of your poor judgment, etc., and all of a sudden that hottie or hunk is just a distant memory, like that person you remember feeling 'love at first sight' with on the escalator at F.A.O. Schwarz in NYC 6 years ago.  Yes, they certainly were interesting, but your brain has moved on to the next squirrels!  There's no really rational reason why you dropped contact, but you did, and they're still wondering why...  NEXT!

Scientific proof (link to CNN post)
"A study of people attending speed-dating events, published in the August 2011 issue of Biology Letters (link), found that they made fewer decisions to date when they attended events with higher numbers of candidates and greater variety. Again, the researchers concluded that people who have too many options will choose nothing."
I suspect it's related to the thrill many people get from gambling, or the reason most men like porn -- NOT for the auto-erotic thrill that comes from visual stimulation, but for the sheer quantity of attractive women who seem to be so interested in willingly doing sexy things just for us!  (It's like having a vast, always new, young, willing 'harem' at the click of a mouse.  ;-)    With online dating, no matter how nice and attractive (with some flaws...) that last coffee date prospect might have been upon meeting them, the profile pics and descriptions of a new prospect the next day suggest he or she might be just that much MORE interesting!  Sadly your 'reach-outs' to the former prospect won't be replied to.

2.  Don't Trust Instincts That Don't Exist!

This is really the second most insidious problem facing us in trying to meet a 'quality' partner online and I posted about it here in more detail.  Humans were 'designed' by evolution over more than a million years of face-to-face experience to judge each other incredibly quickly by what we notice visually in 'live' encounters.  We rely on subtle cues when we are face-to-face: an awkward smile, a turned-away torso, a momentary hesitation in answering, a 'bum leg' if we want a partner who can jog.  Those little things that we notice save us a TON of time we'd otherwise waste in polite conversation with people who turn out to not match our unique desires/demands.   
Online our brains strain to find visual cues to use to for cues to a prospective date's character: we take an unintentional turn of phrase, a misread ironic joke, a spelling error, or an unfamiliar reference and we make a snap judgment call that our brain immediately rewards us for by telling us how perceptive and smart we were to avoid a person who likely wouldn't fit with us.  Slamming the proverbial door shut on these souls we're busy crushing makes our brains light up with what neurologists tell us is "reward feedback", an adrenalin rush at having avoided danger, a few drops of endorphins at having taken decisive action!

Doing all this 'door slamming' is totally and completely wrong-headed, unfair and misguided since a few words on a computer screen cannot possibly convey what that other person was really meaning or thinking the way we can interpret if we are face-to-face, but our brains treat the online interaction the same way they would a real life encounter in person.  Our brains make us feel GREAT about cutting these total strangers out of our lives forever in part because of our built-in egotistical instinct to tell ourselves our arbitrary decisions are 100% rational.  They are not.

Sadly we all do this 'shut down' thing over and over again unconsciously online, yet the outcome is exactly the opposite of what we are on these dating sites to achieve: many of us actually want more dates with more interesting (often deeper and more complex) people than we'd meet at random out in the real world, yet those are the types we shut down fastest as they tend to write things that are more difficult to interpret without having them sitting across from us.  (No amount of 'smiley faces' will convey what a face to face conversation does!  =D  ;-)  ;op   >:-/ 

1.  Storytelling

The biggest barrier to success in online dating stems from our unique human consciousness:  our extraordinarily big-brains lead us to look for meaning even where there is none, filling in blanks in any story with our uniquely human creative imaginations.  We unconsciously self-generate unrealistically high expectations that inevitably get dashed on the basis of some small (or glaring!) real or perceived flaw we identify upon meeting face-to-face.  (The full post about 'storytelling' here.)

Even worse (creating a FAR more insurmountable barrier), the actual process going through hundreds of thumbnail pictures encourages  our the "Prince Charming/Cinderella-Storytelling Machine" in our brains to begin believing we can HAVE that imaginary 'ideal mate'.  Like choosing from the Sears catalogue, we can sit there stone-cold sober and reject all the ones that first don't match our physical criteria, then narrow-down further to goals/values, interests, etc.  In real life those same ideal-looking choices from the online catalogue are unlikely to even meet our flirtatious glances, so within mere seconds of seeing them across a room and hoping, our hopes are dashed and we move on.  With online we start plotting our opening text message and how we'll respond to his/her reply, believing that this ravishing creature might actually respond (especially as the wine we're sipping takes effect) -- in real life the alcohol (and several rejected flirts) make us begin to lower our physical, and other, criteria.  (The 'positive thinking' tactics described in "The Secret" might have some effect in real life, online they have none -- no one can detect your 'positive vibe' over the Internet, sadly.)

Net-Net?  Online Dating Cannot Work the Way We Want It To!

So please don't tell me I'm being negative for pointing out that online dating, so far, is using technology that, while new and exciting, isn't capable of accomplishing the objective at hand.  It's like using the phone to get an idea of whether or not you'll have 'chemistry' between you in real life (as several women I've met online have attempted to do -- hell, I've even tried using Facetime only to discover in real life that the woman who's face I chatted with was NO LONGER the body shape she was in her photos), the phone is perfectly good technology for exchanging romantic whispers after Date #3, not so great at conveying subtle chemistry clues we get visually in real time.

At best, online dating is the equivalent of mass-mailing blind date requests with a bit of a self-promo and your photo enclosed and hoping some recipients will write back with a photo of their own enclosed.  Put in those terms, it's just silly, but given the hope we vest it with it usually proves to be 'soul-crushing'!

The latest rush to use personality tests, video-uploads, or niche-sites (Brainiac, FitnessSingles, Mirror-Image, J-Date, BeautifulPeople, etc.) all ignore the fact that, fundamentally, online SEEMS like it will be a fantastic tool to give adult singles an alternative to the drunken, blaring bar scene with its nightly collection of hundreds of potential life partners, but it cannot work effectively because we evolved to meet face-to-face.  As long as we remain human and, as such, largely incapable of controlling the tendencies evolution gave us to cope with dealing with others face-to-face, online is going to remain largely ineffective at helping us meet compatible partners.

At the end of the day, 'coffee dates' (link to my post re: dating advice for women post 35) arranged via online dating sites require a disproportionately large investment of energy for what turns out to be a hit-or-miss result.  All the time we put into assessing the personalities, the photos, the email/IM exchanges, their likes/dislikes, their descriptions, turn out to lead to result in about as many 'instant chemistry' encounters as if we'd never looked at the profile at all!  :-(

My advice?  Get out there and meet people face to face in the real world and focus on things that attract large quantities of people so the chances of seeing someone with whom there is mutual attraction AND the opportunity to chat/meet/bump into one another are higher.  Go to seminars, take courses at campuses where there are tons of people, go back to church/synagogue/temple, VOLUNTEER!  Online dating is a seductive trap that plays very insidiously into our unconscious vulnerabilities.

Slim Pickins: Why There Aren't More "Quality" Men Online? You Girls Are Trusting Offline Instincts to Shoot Us Down Online!

My BFF, Cath, has also often bemoaned the lack of 'quality' men who are online dating sites and recently a very appealing 41 year old approached me on POF writing:
"Well you seem fantastic: eclectic and outgoing....  I hope you're having luck around here 'cause from where I'm sittin' it's pretty slim pickins!  Cheers, L."
Mr. Slim Pickens, RIP
Now Slim Pickens was a character actor in Hollywood many years ago, but I don't think anyone would have called him pretty, so I expect L. is bemoaning the same lack of quantity of quality men as Cath has.  The amazing thing was that she was about to prove herself to be a contributor to the problem rather than a woman trying to fix the dearth of quality men by modifying her natural offline reactions to adjust for the fact we were communicating online.

I replied saying that I found her profile intriguing and would like to meet, but got nothing back.  After waiting for four days over the weekend with sinking heart (having learned from long experience that when an initially enthusiastic woman suddenly goes cold, the more days that pass the less likely she's ever going to re-connect), dejectedly I wrote:
"When "fantastic & eclectic" turns to zero...

...as in: "I suddenly switched to having ZERO interest in you, Mr. Former "Fantastic, eclectic and outgoing!" ;-)
 

L., I'm always amazed how online dating, with a few lines in a reply, can inexplicably and instantly 'throw that switch' with you lovely ladies. I do suspect it's a prime reason that the guys get frustrated and, like me, 'don't work it that hard'. It's just less painful (and the odds of successfully getting to the next date are far better) to wait for a date to come along in real life. K."
Her response, while quite positive overall (she claimed to have been engrossed in reading my blog posts), ended with:
"Unfortunately now I have (almost) zero interest in getting to know you with the sudden toxic negative energy in the air."
Ahem.  My point had been that part of what drains the positive energy out of the men who attempt online dating is the speed with which many women shoot us down on the basis of some perceived (hyper-analyzed) 'slight' in what we've typed (with gradually increasing trepidation over time) into a 'wink' or into a note in reply to a wink.  We guys cannot win online as the proverbial deck is just stacked far too high against us.  Most guys with whom I've discussed this report feeling the same way and, after an initial flurry of activity and contact attempts, gradually stop using online dating sights all that actively (the exceptions are the players who look like movie stars -- they use it as a quick way to get a date when an opening appears in their busy schedule of one night stands).

Now Cath says this 'shut down' could well be that various posts in this blog of mine that made her sense that "MY deck was stacked against L." (apparently the 'written me' can be intimidating to some women) and that the most gracious retreat was for her to cut things off before I did so, or that she misinterpreted my tongue-in-cheek use of 'cynicism' to mean I am truly cynical (yeah, it an investment in reading to 'get me', I know  ;-), but ignoring the opportunity to hyper-analyze this particular exchange, it points to a much more fundamental problem with trying to select people to date online:
  • We humans are 'wired' to instinctively assess potential mates through a vast array of subtle visual, behavioural and pheromone cues.
  • We are hard-wired to 'trust our instincts' (if we weren't, our species wouldn't have survived).
  • We have NO instincts to help us assess each other by the way another person writes, what words he/she might happen to string together, or by still photos.  (No matter how strong your desire to believe otherwise might be!  See point immediately above.)
    After a couple of years of trying just about every site out there (I am, if nothing else, a marketing analyst!) AND attending many singles events, this is my experience:

    Meeting Face-to-Face? Fun and Stimulating! ;-)

    Struggling to Meet Dates Online? Soul-Crushing :-(

    I'm a frequent flier when it comes to soul-crushing (and getting crushed...)!  I get a wink from a woman with no photo posted and, no matter how elaborate and intriguing the profile description is, I 'click-delete'.  Does she have gorgeous photos but a one line description?  Trash!  If I can't get any kind of a 'read' on a woman, no matter how good she looks, I'm not going to waste my time.  Why?  Because after being online for two years I now know how much time I'll have to invest to cajole a recent full-length photo out of her only to be gobsmacked that she thought I'd become SO interested in her via text alone that her appearance wouldn't matter, or to exchange enough messages to get to know just how unfortunate her understanding of English is (not that I've got anything against new Canadians! I just have to be able to have conversations about saving the world).  If she hasn't supplied enough info or several recent full-length photos I slam the door never to return.

    What I'm getting at in this post is a very different thing, however.

    Humans are designed to judge each other incredibly quickly by what we notice visually in 'live' encounters.  We rely on subtle cues when we are face-to-face: an awkward smile, a turned-away torso, a momentary hesitation in answering, a 'bum leg' if we want a partner who can jog.  Those little things that we notice save us a TON of time we'd otherwise waste in polite conversation with people who turn out to not match our unique desires/demands.   
    • Offline we run through that analysis in a heartbeat.
    • Online we attempt to do the same thing, but it is entirely and completely counterproductive (although our brains will assure us quite the opposite!).
    I believe it is actually this that L. fell prey to and is really the second most insidious problem facing meeting a 'quality' partner online.

    L. not only had access to TONS of information about me through this blog and "An Unremarkable Life""Is Rex a Dog?", as well as via my professional blog and all my photos available online, she had actually invested time in reading some of it.  She had a MUCH clearer impression of what I might be like than she ever could have with most other guy's via their profiles, yet she proved as willing, in this online environment, to trash me equally as quickly as she would a guy with one ancient photo posted and a single sentence profile description.

    Maybe I deserved it, but that's not exactly what I'm getting at!

    Despite all that time invested in trying to get to know me and despite a wealth of information at hand, L. trashed me in a split second NOT because I'd really deserved it with anything I'd written to her, but because it's what all our brains are pre-programmed to do when meeting a prospective mate offline: assess the visual clues and, in the absence of pheromones, or eyes meeting, or behaviour to observe (he picks up a fallen child or tells a joke to a group of people), work with whatever we've got for our eyes to evaluate, in the case of online dating we work very hard to extract meaning from 'between the lines' of an instant message or email.


    Every moment of our entire evolution,  some several million years from our common ancestor with the great apes until Homo Sapiens Sapiens emerged about 150,000 years ago -- right up to the transformative moment arrived that we were sufficiently urbanized and literate enough to start sending letters with photos enclosed to 'blind dates' (which is essentially what online dating is), humans NEVER have been faced with trying to evaluate potential partners in any other way than face-to-face.  Never.  It is not something we are equipped to do, yet online dating attracts us like lemmings leaping off a cliff!  (Here's a good visual: stretch both your arms out to your sides, that represents the length of time we've spent evolving since split from the chimps, the length of the fingernail outgrowth on the finger that you broke the nail off yesterday is the amount of time we've been literate.)

    The moment L's brain got the chance  to do what we do naturally when we are face-to-face (and this is especially true of females -- no offence, but you girls are far more likely to go with an emotionally inspired 'hunch' than we lads are) and, sitting in front of a computer screen, make a snap judgment call  based upon subtle cues hitting the back of her retinas, she did so, shutting me down automatically and without much cognitive dissonance after the fact.  Sadly the only visual cues her brain had to evaluate were a few words with no real understanding of what I might have actually been thinking when I wrote them.

    Online we take an unintentional turn of phrase,  a misread ironic joke, a spelling error, or an unfamiliar reference and we make a snap judgment call that our brain immediately rewards us for by telling us how perceptive and smart we were to avoid a person who likely wouldn't fit with us.  Slamming the proverbial door shut on these crushed souls make our brains light up with reward activity, a bit of an adrenalin rush at having avoided danger, a few drops of endorphin at having taken decisive action!  Doing all this 'door slammin' is totally and completely wrong-headed, unfair  and misguided since a few words on a computer screen cannot possibly convey what that other person was really meaning or thinking the way we can face-to-face, but our brains treat the online interaction the same way they would a real life encounter in person.

    DON'T TRUST NONEXISTENT INSTINCTS!

    Perhaps the most tragic thing  is that we are also hard-wired to 'trust our instincts'.  This is an ESPECIALLY strong conviction when it comes to the subject of women choosing dates!  I have news for you, ladies, you cannot 'trust your instincts' if our species has no instincts related to this new medium.  Using your vivid imagination to read a hastily thrown together string of words banged onto a keyboard, sent through the Internet and read on a screen and imbue it with bizarre intentions and/or "toxic negativity isn't going to get you dates with interesting men.  It will get you dates with 'players' (formerly called 'playboys') who have figured out that they have to say as little as possible to get you 'onto the dance floor'.

    Sadly we all do this same 'shut down' thing over and over again unconsciously, yet the outcome is exactly the opposite of what we are on these dating sites to achieve: many of us actually want more dates with more interesting (often deeper and more complex) people than we'd meet at random out in the real world, yet those are the types we shut down fastest as they tend to write things that are more difficult to interpret without having them sitting across from us.  Having seen him interviewed often enough, I can say without trepidation that Stephen King is a really swell, nice guy in person, but from reading his books you'd be convinced he's a really scary character!

    Had you suppressed your instinct to apply offline brain processes to online encounters you might be on vacation in the south of France with an ideal partner, but there you go...  And the bigger picture outcome?  "Slim pickins".

    The 7 Fatal Flaws of Online Dating here.

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