Have you ever come across a dating profile that includes the phrase, “I won’t settle for less than perfect, and neither should you”? It seems that the vastness of the online dating market has encouraged a change in attitude among singles away from “I could do worse” towards “I could do better.”
Having this attitude doesn’t just slow down the rate at which dating markets clear, but according to new evidence leaves some searchers so exhausted they end up leaving the market all together.
When thinking about the online dating market I like to compare it to search for a partner in a smaller, self-contained dating market like a rural town in the 1960s. At that time, and in that environment, looking for a relationship partner wasn’t a complicated affair. Limited options meant that most people would have married the least objectionable partner available.
In terms of economic language these people set their “reservation value” of a mate low in expectation of never marrying if they set it any higher.
As dating markets grew, first with urbanization and later with access to online markets, singles became willing to wait a little longer in the hope of finding someone who was closer to what they perceived to be the perfect mate. According to that logic, with greatly expanded online markets in the last five years reservation values are probably higher than they have ever been before.
Authors of a new research paper talked to singles about filtering (which we discussed in Part I) and exhaustion in shopping for a mate online. Consider this quote from one of their participants about how her searching behavior has changed over time:
“I have become more selective about what I want and don’t want. I used to think I would be lucky just to get a date or have someone look at me. I was naïve, I wouldn’t think there were losers, now I’m more discerning. The person inside of me who wanted to get out has gotten out. I don’t waste time like before; I used to be polite and nice, now I just tell them to piss off.”
And this searcher:
I don’t know if it’s because of online dating, but just my opinion of men has changed a bit. They’re not as good as I thought, I’m not as desperate as before. The whole process is too tiring, I can’t be bothered.
Others described comparing new prospective partners not only to people whom they had met in the past but also to a possible person who might appear in the future. One former user, who has since given up the search, said:
I don’t think it’s for me … I think those people are on there looking for something they’re never ever going to find. They might find someone who fits 9 of the boxes but because one of boxes hasn’t been ticked, they will look for someone who ticks all 10.
I would be the last person to suggest that men and women shouldn’t be looking for someone who is their perfect match, but when reservation values are set too high people risk never meeting a person to who meets that standard. This is as true in online dating as it is in the rural dating market I described above. The difference between these markets is that online markets give singles the illusion that the supply of potential partners is infinite and so among them one must be ideal. And so they wait longer, and search harder, than they might in a smaller market.
Remember Mad TV’s on the dating service called “Lowered Expectations”? I am proposing that rational expectations, that recognized the limits to the online dating market, would encourage relationships seekers to find a mate sooner before becoming fed up with the whole process.
Of course for people who do eventually find that perfect someone, this type of matching is a good thing because it improves the quality of marriages. That is topic we are going to return to in my next post.
Best, Kirsty and Sharon Delmege (2012). “The filtered encounter: online dating
and the problem of filtering through excessive information.” Social Semiotics vol. 22(3); pp. 237-258.