The Biology of Chemistry

Subconsciously processed, often unintentional produced signals play a major role in face-to-face attraction: body language, fleeting facial expressions, intonation, scent, pheromones. These kinds of cues tend to be given off inadvertently, in Goffman's (1959) terminology, rather than deliberately given. Some of them, like microexpressions (Ekman & Friesen 1969) and pheromonal signals, are impossible to control consciously. They have no analogue in textual online environments, where users have the time to craft their message via a medium that reveals no more than they intend to show.

Pheromones play a poorly understood role in human attraction. Mammals detect pheromones with sense organs near to but distinct from those in the nose used for smelling. Laboratory experiments demonstrate that they affect how attractive people find one another, but the strength of this effect compared to other determinants of attraction is unclear. In experiments in which women were exposed to men's axillary sweat but never met the men, women preferred the scent of men whose genotypes were similar to her father's genotype, but not so similar as to be incestuous (Jacob et al. 2002). The evolutionary explanation for this tendency is that women would prefer to mate with someone whose genotype is as much like their own as possible without being so close as to lead to the genetic defects that come from inbreeding. Similarly, women preferred men with whom they would be likely to produce genetically healthy children (Wedekind et al. 1995).

This kind of information cannot be captured or conveyed by current technology and so cannot be shared with potential partners in an online dating environment. Online dating users cannot perceive pheromonal attraction until they meet in person, by which time they might have made a significant investment in terms of time or emotional energy with the other person. Although it is unclear exactly what the matching algorithm would be to discover pheromonally compatible pairs of people, it seems likely given the basis in genetics that at least a crude algorithm could be discovered given more empirical work. Technology will emerge to digitize biological signals like pheromones, enabling widespread collection of this information, which could be used for searching and matching. However, because it is uncertain how great a role pheromonal affinity plays in human attraction, we cannot be sure how much such information would improve the matching capabilities of online dating systems.

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