Meet Jacob. He’s in his early thirties, college educated, and decently attractive. He likes to watch sports, see live music, and socialize at bars. He’s originally from Portland and loves it here. The most private thing he’s willing to admit about himself? You mean, besides the fact that he’s on an online dating site? Well, between you and me, people sometimes say he’s lazy, aimless, irresponsible with money, emotionally negligent, and serially indifferent to self-improvement. (But message him if you’re chill and like to have fun!)
According to the latest edition of The Atlantic, online dating sites and their members portend an important new shift in society’s attitude towards commitment in the article "A Million First Dates." Here's Jacob:
“I’m about 95 percent certain that if I’d met Rachel offline, and if I’d never done online dating, I would’ve married her. At that point in my life, I would’ve overlooked everything else and done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it ... I was eager to see what else was out there.”
Before the advent of online dating sites, a lack of viable alternatives would have forced people like Jacob to change if they wanted to preserve their relationship. That’s no longer necessary, argues Atlantic writer Dan Slater. Easy access to a pool of potential romantic partners makes it more likely that people will abandon relationships rather than endure the inconveniences or concessions that customarily attend any long-term relationship. Slater worries:
"What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?"
To compound this problem, not only will relationships become less stable they’ll become less satisfying. Even if members don't resemble the nice but listless young Jacob, psychology research shows that a surfeit of choice tends to diminish the enjoyment of any subsequent decision. Slater cites an example where subjects who selected a chocolate from an array of six options believed it tasted better than those who selected the same chocolate from an array of 30.
If this causes any hand-wringing, let me offer a few reasons why Slater’s analysis might be misleading and just a tad alarmist.
Slater correctly highlights the dramatically enlarged dating pool as a recent social development; however, it doesn’t necessarily follow that increased availability of potential partners will diminish the value we place on meaningful long-term commitment. Think of it this way: If we compare marrying a great spouse as akin to winning the lottery, then it doesn’t make sense to say that an abundant and available supply of lottery tickets will entice people to abandon their winnings for the chance to play again.
Jacob notwithstanding, of course.
This type of reasoning is endemic to popular social-science articles. It presumes people view their partners as fungible, superficially different but basically indistinguishable, and hence interchangeable. The idea that people are rational utility maximizers and view one another as units of exchange (or pieces of chocolate) and thus act accordingly is a common and irritating misconception that permeates much of social science analysis. It's worse when its applied to something as irrational as romantic chemistry or love.
In fact, we have just as much reason to think that the increased frequency of dates enabled by these online sites will promote, not reduce, commitment. Dating strangers you’ve met on the internet because of a shared interest in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the new Kanye album may generate a lot of dates but it’s also exhausting. It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy doing this dance indefinitely, and for most people, the novelty of new beginnings eventually wears off. People begin to recognize the truth in that old adage: A good man (or woman) can be hard to find. And if you do find one, you might want to hold on, because the dating market can be capricious, love elusive, and sometimes fortune doesn’t always favor the bold.