Imagine the following scenario: you are standing in the supermarket looking at a box of cereal in your left hand, and then another box in your right. Your gaze pans up to the shelves in front of you with a seemingly unsurmountable number of other cereal choices. One has the flakes you like, but another one is healthier for you. Another is on sale. And another choice, and another, and another. Frustrated, overwhelmed, and inundated, you stop thinking about it, throw any random one in your cart, and move on. Or maybe you don’t choose any at all.
This occurrence is not uncommon, nor is it limited to food. “Choice overload” has been examined in many contexts; shopping, college or career choices, and even online dating. The surge in popularity of online dating is another avenue for people to experience this mentally overwhelming process. A recent Ted Talk1 from Dr. Helen Fisher, renowned relationships researcher and Chief Scientist at Match.com, describes this phenomenon as a sort of paradox of choice; online dating provides so many potential options that people have too many options. They are overwhelmed with their choices, experience this psychological burden, and mentally shut down, ultimately not choosing any option.
In fact, approximately 1 in 3 internet users agree that “online dating keeps people from settling down because they always have options for people to date” 2. When choosing a partner, having more options in online dating actually leads to feeling overwhelmed because there’s too much to think about3, resulting in mistakes, poor quality of choice in partner (maybe choosing someone who may not be the best fit for you), and ultimately decreased enjoyment with one’s choice. For example, it has been shown that if online daters actually do pick a partner, the larger the pool from which one chooses said partner, the more likely one is to experience dissatisfaction with their choice after having made it – a sort of “buyer’s remorse” in relationships.4 Not to mention, a lot of people feel as if dating online is less about finding a partner and more about shopping for the right combination of traits, reducing some of the humanity in trying to meet people and turning online dating services into a love market.5
These overwhelming amounts of options, poor choices made, and buyer’s remorse in romantic decisions paint a fairly bleak picture all together, but it’s not as desolate as it seems. There is no conclusive evidence that relationships from an online dating background are less satisfying than offline relationships6, with some research even indicating that relationships where the partners met online could potentially be more satisfying7. Just because it’s difficult or mentally stressful does not mean it’s impossible; given the prevalence of online dating it’s very likely that you know people who have started a relationship online and remain happily together2.
Even Dr. Fisher has hypothesized that this trend of non-commitment in relationships is not due to recklessness but caution1; online daters want to know everything about a partner before committing. Ultimately, online dating is just another avenue to meet people, not necessarily better or worse than any other. In the opinion of this author, like any other endeavor, online dating decisions should be treated with consideration, caution, and optimism. Taking a moment to think about what you’re looking for and remembering that each profile is another human being also looking for a connection, not just a combination of looks + hobbies + job + and more, can do wonders to stave off the overwhelming effect of so many choices and help you catch the right fish for you.
1 Fisher, H. (2016, June). Helen Fisher: Technology hasn’t changed love. Here’s why [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/helen_fisher_technology_hasn_t_changed_love_here_s_why?
2 Smith, A., & Duggan, M. (2013). Online dating & relationships. Pew Internet & American Life Project.
3 Wu, P. L., & Chiou, W. B. (2009). More options lead to more searching and worse choices in finding partners for romantic relationships online: An experimental study. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(3), 315-318.
4 D’Angelo, J. D., & Toma, C. L. (2017). There are plenty of fish in the sea: The effects of choice overload and reversibility on online daters’ satisfaction with selected partners. Media Psychology, 20, 1-27.
5 Heino, R. D., Ellison, N. B., & Gibbs, J. L. (2010). Relationshopping: Investigating the market metaphor in online dating. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(4), 427-447.
6 Lomanowska, A. M., & Guitton, M. J. (2016). Online intimacy and well-being in the digital age. Internet Interventions, 4, 138-144.
7 Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G. C., Ogburn, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 10135-10140.
Dr. Richard A. Dowlat
Richard’s research focuses on online dating and its interactions with interpersonal attraction, examining what effects online dating has on individual psychological processes, mate criteria, relationship processes, and outcomes.