Catalogs of People

In mid-20th century America, the Sears Roebuck catalog provided almost every non-perishable good a person could want, all shipped to your doorstep. Online dating provides such a catalog of potential mates — or dates, or sex partners. From the perspective of the individual, the prospectives seem bountiful; this surplus surpasses the scale of a singles bar by several orders of magnitude.

However, such a bounty demands a different cognitive approach than one would employ at a dinner party, for example. An intimate gathering allows one to discover others gradually, through social and environmental context and through conversation. Of course, we cannot help forming initial impressions based on superficial characteristics, but the organization and scale of such an event allow us to look past them. In online dating, users typically search and sort by relatively superficial characteristics, precluding interaction with anyone who does not meet the criteria the searcher specifies. Browsing a large catalog requires exclusion of entire categories, snap judgments, and quick dismissal of the vast majority of the items. It is unclear to what degree this mentality might affect decisions in online dating.

The Tyranny of Choice

Iyengar and Lepper (2000) studied consumer behavior by varying the number of gourmet jams available at a supermarket tasting table. They found that customers were more likely to buy jam when they were presented with fewer choices at the tasting table; they also liked the jam better. The authors suggest that customers might have enjoyed their choices more when the options seemed more special. Furthermore, they indicate that it might not be dissatisfaction with what they choose but rather the increased uncertainty that comes with choosing among many similar items that causes stress in decision-making, an effect which would be exacerbated if the decision were important and if some of the options were clearly not as good as others.

In a subsequent study, Botti and Iyengar (2003) found that, contrary to popular wisdom about the pleasure of making one's own decisions, those who were permitted to choose were more satisfied than those whose choices were made for them only when selecting from "more preferred alternatives." When the options included "less preferred alternatives," non-choosers were more satisfied (Botti and Iyengar 2003).

It is possible that similar effects color the perceptions of users of online dating systems when they face choices between thousands of potential partners — in the offline world, people never have so many simultaneous dating options. Studies like these also have implications for understanding arranged marriages, in which partners often maintain higher levels of satisfaction than in freely chosen love marriages (Brehm et al. 2002).

The Lure of Guaranteed Replacement

Additionally, the perpetual availability of a catalog of others lowers the cost of leaving an existing relationship. Usually, the prospect of being alone for a period of time and the uncertainty of finding another partner serve as disincentives to the termination of a present relationship. With a catalog of single others readily available, people who are advertising their availability to people like you, it should be easier to dismiss the current relationship with confidence that one can find another person at will.

Similarly, online personals make the opportunity cost of entering a relationship — or staying in one — readily apparent. Instead of a vague knowledge that you might be missing out on someone better, you have detailed profiles of all the possibilities.

Social Dating

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