Online daters aren’t really that different from offline daters. I often hear my students claim that people who use online dating are “weirdos,” or, “that’s for people who can’t get dates in real life.” But the idea that people who prefer online dating are somehow different than offline daters is not supported by science. First of all, different how, exactly? In terms of general personality traits (e.g., openness to new experiences, neuroticism), online and offline daters are not significantly different from each other.1
One study did find that people who have used online dating (ever in their lives) were more sensitive to rejection compared to non-users—but this was a general “have you ever used online dating in your life” question and did not differentiate between one-time users and regular users.2 So ultimately this finding does not tell us anything about frequent/regular online dating users compared to the rest of the population. In addition, this result was inconsistent with a previous study that found people who used online dating were less anxious about dating compared to offline daters,3 so the research findings are clearly mixed at best (and we need more studies to clarify what’s going on). Furthermore, in the same study the authors examined participants’ attachment style alongside their sensitivity to rejection, and results showed that attachment style was unrelated to online dating use. This suggests that people who date online are not more or less secure than others, though they may be more sensitive to rejection.
Some other studies note that online daters tend to be more socially liberal (less religious and less likely to endorse traditional gender roles),1 but those effects are small, so we’re not talking about fundamentally different types of people here. Also, these effects might be historically limited, since people who are more progressive are also likely to try new trendy things (like online dating, which hasn’t been around very long), but once those things become mainstream and popular, everyone (including social conservatives) join the party.
Online dating isn’t really that different from offline dating. Remember that a key advantage to using online dating websites is that you can meet more potential partners than you otherwise might be able to. In other words, online dating provides a greater “pool of alternatives” from which to choose.1 The advent of the internet has yielded one unquestionable change in modern society, which is connectivity. Mass communication now facilitates more interactions, but not necessarily different interactions, than we had before.
I would suggest readers take a holistic perspective on internet dating relative to “offline” dating (i.e., dating IRL). For those of you who are skeptical about online dating websites, consider this: where else would you meet ordinary people? At a bar or club? At a friend’s party? At yoga class? Are these venues necessarily better than dating websites or apps? I think not—and there is no scientific data to suggest that one way of meeting people is universally “better” than another.
One recent study4 (commissioned by eHarmony) showed that people who met their spouses online were significantly more satisfied than those who met offline, and less likely to divorce. However, those effects were small (meaning there wasn’t a large difference between the online and offline daters in terms of marital outcomes). Furthermore, a large percentage of the folks who met online did not meet on a dating website, instead they met through social media sites (e.g., Facebook), email, chat rooms, etc., so our conclusions from this study are limited to general internet usage (not online dating per se). See critiques of that study here and here.
In addition, a newer study has shown exactly the opposite—that couples who met online were more likely to split up compared to those who met offline.5 So the research findings (once again) are mixed, and the truth is that you shouldn’t fear online dating as something that foreshadows doom, nor should you put all your faith in online dating to help you find the perfect relationship. Critical readers will realize we need more scientific research examining how couples meet and whether meeting venue predicts the success/failure of their relationships.
No matter how people meet, the scientific evidence suggests that the keys to attraction and dating are the same. Online dating may simply be yet another (imperfect) medium for meeting new people that can complement other types of social engagement. Happy dating!
Read our other articles about online dating here.
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1Finkel, E. J., Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (2012). Online dating: A critical analysis from the perspective of psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(1) 3–66.
2Blackhart, G. C., Fitzpatrick, J., & Williamson, J. (2014). Dispositional factors predicting use of online dating sites and behaviors related to online dating. Computers in Human Behavior, 33113-118. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.022
3Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2007). Who visits online dating sites? Exploring some characteristics of online daters. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 849–852.
4Cacioppo, J., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G., Ogburn, E., & VanderWeele, T. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(25), 10135-10140. doi:10.1073/pnas.1222447110
5Paul, A. (2014). Is online better than offline for meeting partners? Depends: Are you looking to marry or to date? Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 17(10), 664-667. doi:10.1089/cyber.2014.0302
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.