January 29, 2008

Matchmaking, Updated? [7:43 am]

An uneasy marriage of psychology, sociology and commerce: Online Dating - Compatibility Testing

Once upon a time, finding a mate was considered too important to be entrusted to people under the influence of raging hormones. Their parents, sometimes assisted by astrologers and matchmakers, supervised courtship until customs changed in the West because of what was called the Romeo and Juliet revolution. Grown-ups, leave the kids alone.

But now some social scientists have rediscovered the appeal of adult supervision — provided the adults have doctorates and vast caches of psychometric data. Online matchmaking has become a boom industry as rival scientists test their algorithms for finding love.

[...] As the matchmakers compete for customers — and denigrate each other’s methodology — the battle has intrigued academic researchers who study the mating game. On the one hand, they are skeptical, because the algorithms and the results have not been published for peer review. But they also realize that these online companies give scientists a remarkable opportunity to gather enormous amounts of data and test their theories in the field. EHarmony says more than 19 million people have filled out its questionnaire.

[...] Does this method actually work? In theory, thanks to its millions of customers and their fees (up to $60 a month), eHarmony has the data and resources to conduct cutting-edge research. It has an advisory board of prominent social scientists and a new laboratory with researchers lured from academia like Dr. Gonzaga, who previously worked at a marriage-research lab at U.C.L.A.

So far, except for a presentation at a psychologists’ conference, the company has not produced much scientific evidence that its system works. It has started a longitudinal study comparing eHarmony couples with a control group, and Dr. Buckwalter says it is committed to publishing peer-reviewed research, but not the details of its algorithm. That secrecy may be a smart business move, but it makes eHarmony a target for scientific critics, not to mention its rivals.

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