Scientific sanction to love

by Rob Horning

1 February 2008


John Tierney wrote a piece in the NYT about the pseudoscientific algorithms online dating services use to help people meet the one. Arguing that computers do a better job than people themselves at picking from prospective mates, this is how the story concludes:

Until outside scientists have a good look at the numbers, no one can know how effective any of these algorithms are, but one thing is already clear. People aren’t so good at picking their own mates online. Researchers who studied online dating found that the customers typically ended up going out with fewer than 1 percent of the people whose profiles they studied, and that those dates often ended up being huge letdowns. The people make up impossible shopping lists for what they want in a partner, says Eli Finkel, a psychologist who studies dating at Northwestern University’s Relationships Lab.
“They think they know what they want,” Dr. Finkel said. “But meeting somebody who possesses the characteristics they claim are so important is much less inspiring than they would have predicted.”
The new matchmakers may or may not have the right formula. But their computers at least know better than to give you what you want.

It’s not surprising that shopping for a mate would turn out to be less effective than having a computer more or less randomly select one. This is not a testimony to the effectiveness of the algorithms but an indication that spontaneity and unpredictability are important ingredients in launching a relationship—perhaps more important than liking the same music and reading the same books and professing to have the same sort of hobbies. What would-be lovers want is not so much to see Godard films together but to share a sense of destiny.

No matter what the methodology, the idea that some particular person was scientifically chosen to like you is likely a strong argument in that person’s favor, so the proposed matches probably go into their dates feeling fairly confident of being charming. After all, this person has to like you or else the computer wouldn’t have spit their name out, right? It’s a sanction to love, trusting to the almighty power of Science. Whereas when you pick a person yourself, based on some fantasy of what you wish appealed to you, you become responsible for the choice (as opposed to Science) and are obliged to second-guess yourself and to wonder whether you might have done a better job—the person’s shortcomings become a comment on your own inability to shop effectively. That responsibility can lead to self-doubt and an unwillingness to trust that anything will work out. “It’s not that I haven’t taken the time to get to know this person,” one might think, “it’s just that I didn’t think hard enough about making my selection.” There’s always one more profile to look at before making a choice anyway. Shopping for a person based on your own personal preferences seems to lead to an illusion of control over the object sought after, turning the date partner into a kind of commodity and generating an expectation that you should be able to return it if it doesn’t completely satisfy. That’s probably why the online dating thing seems to work better for people who want only sex. There, pragmatic calculation is welcome and necessary.

In general, we tend to define what is romantic in terms of the absence of the sort of rational calculation processes we use to strike good bargains. Romantic feeling is typically set in opposition to that kind of thought; the feeling is residual, what’s left over after everything that has been purposely sought after is accounted for. It only feels like love when we can’t quite account for it, and it doesn’t seem to have been manufactured by our cleverness or practicality. When a relationship serves some pragmatic end, it doesn’t seem like love, and hand-picking a partner according to a laundry list of expectations is far too pragmatic. Instead, our love stories tend to be framed in terms of overcoming obstacles, rejecting the protests that loving some particular person makes no sense.

Here’s a sweeping generalization: In coming to reject arranged marriages and the like, our society has strongly shifted in the other direction, and we balk at any whiff of instrumentality in the procurement of intimate partners. So we have to play elaborate tricks on ourselves to avoid accusing ourselves of being calculating in our love, of loving for the “wrong” reasons, which is to say, for any reason other than a blind willingness to be in love. This we call chemistry or sympathy, the force of attraction that can’t otherwise be explained rationally. Computer-assisted dating is one trick for masking our own intentionality, transferring the calculation to the computers and absolving ourselves of the pettiness of actively deducing what we should want from another person and scheming how to get it, leaving us to blithely and passively react to the suitor supplied, just as we are used to, incidentally, from consuming entertainment.


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