Online dating has, for many, become a mainstay of meeting new potential romantic partners, whether looking for casual dating, serious dating or even a marital partner. Until relatively recently, people met potential partners through friends, family, school and other shared activities. According to research by Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012), internet dating steadily increased reaching a plateau in 2009. At that time, 22% of heterosexual couples reported meeting online. Meeting online was the third most common way of meeting, after introduction by friends, and close behind meeting randomly in public settings (bars, restaurants, parties, etc.).
According to the Pew Research Center (link is external), 15% of Americans recently reported using online dating sites to meet people, and online dating is gaining wider acceptance across most age ranges, notably tripling among people age 18-24 from 10% to 27% between 2013 and 2015. Yet, 1/3rd of people who have used a dating site have never met up for an in-person date. Lastly, in spite of the rise in online dating, only 5% of married couples or those in a committed relationship say they met their partners online, and 88% of people say they met their partners via conventional means. So while online dating is on the rise, most online relationships do not lead to long-term committed relationships. However, according to research by Cacioppo et al. (2013), a higher percentage, 30%, of married couples in their sample met online, and those that did were slightly but significantly more likely to stay together and report greater marital satisfaction.
Researchers are just beginning to understand the new and complicated dynamics of online dating, and it is unclear what factors go into successful matching, though long-term relationship satisfaction is likely to come from the same factors regardless of how people meet (go here for an overview of predictors of relationships satisfaction).
How do couples move from online dating to that all-important first date? What online dating behaviors and factors set the stage for a successful first date, and the potential for an ongoing relationship? Sharabi and Caughlin (2017) set out to investigate the question of what predicts first date success in their recent work.
They surveyed 186 participants who were using online dating, and had at least one person they were thinking of meeting in person. Of that first group, 94 participants had a first date, and completed the full survey, which included measures drawn from the literature on relationships and online dating. This is the first such study to look at how dating evolves over time during the transition from online to in-person dating, and future work from this group will look at factors beyond the first in-person date.
For this study, the researchers measured 1) “anticipated future interaction”, 2) “change in attraction” (from online dating to after the first date), 3) “perceived similarity” (a well-known predictor of attraction), and 4) “uncertainty” (about the other person, e.g. how well do you know them? how certain are you that they like you?, etc.). In addition, they collected the emails study participants sent prior to meeting and carefully coded the content into thematic units. The data, drawn directly from online conversation, included 1) expressed similarity, 2) frequency of disclosure, and 3) information seeking, and they rated the communication volume based on the amount of words in the emails.
Their findings are telling. First of all, they found that most participants were disappointed after the first date, as indicated by having less attraction after meeting than during online engagement. Furthermore, first date success was predicted by perceived similarity, expressed similarity, lower uncertainty, and greater information seeking. Importantly, all other factors being equal, greater communication overall, and greater disclosure, predicted first date success.
Real-life online dating experience tells us that it isn’t surprising that the first date is typically disappointing. It may be because expectations are inflated and idealized in the absence of more actual information about the other person: in fact, the effect is lower when there is greater communication and disclosure. The study authors note: “Online dating is another setting where certain elements of people’s personalities, behaviors, and even physical appearances may be obfuscated at first, leading to positive illusions that are not always sustainable over time.” The same effect has also been seen in marriage, where not all newlyweds maintain satisfaction after the honeymoon phase.
It’s common to hear stories from people we know describing how excited they were after talking online to someone who seemed so perfect, sharing the same favorite movies, sense of humor and taste in music, TV and literature, only to feel really let down when they actually met and got to know the person better. It’s easy to play up similarity and downplay differences—and it’s understandable that some people looking for companionship tend to quickly develop a crush when someone seems to “get them” right away. Indeed, Sharabi and Caughlin found that, contrary to their expectations, the greater the similarity, the better. There was no point at which there was too much similarity, at least right after the first date. Further research is required to see if and when this more-is-better finding carries out over the long run.
Likewise, there was no point at which having less uncertainty about the other person became a negative. The more someone knew—the better and the more they had asked about the other person (“information seeking”)—the more likely the first date was to be successful, presumably because doing so reduced uncertainty.
It appears that, in general, people who ask more before the first date have a better experience than those who wait until they meet to find out important information, possibly because they are less likely to be disillusioned. And after hundreds of first dates, who wants to waste their time finding out they didn’t need to meet in person anyway? The ability to find out more ahead of time, versus the proverbial “blind date” or even meeting a stranger at a party, is an advantage that online dating has over conventional dating—if you ask questions, and if the other person genuinely shares.
Similarly, greater communication predicted a more successful first date, especially when people really were similar to each other.
When people were overly positive, exaggerating similarities and the expectation of future interactions, disillusionment was very likely; this effect was greater when communication was lower, presumably because people are able to maintain positive illusions in the absence of information about the other person, leading to a greater risk of being disappointed. The researchers note that dating services that facilitate communication and sharing of information may be more effective.
Overall, the researchers note that relationships don’t go smoothly from online to in-person, confirming what many people who online date already know. There’s often a jarring difference between how it feels online and what it feels like in person. Many times, that first meeting is a letdown, and it doesn’t go further than that. Having greater communication prior to meeting, asking for more information, having the other person honestly provide it, and finding there is solid similarity before that first date make it more likely to be successful, at least in the short run. It will be interesting to see what subsequent research reveals about long-term predictors of online dating success.
So, what are the take-home messages? At least, when going online for serious relationships, consider:
1) Looking for people who share genuine similarities with you;
2) Communicating a lot before the first date. And make sure it is high quality communication;
3) Asking a lot of questions. Generally get to know the person as well as you can before meeting (but don’t wait too long because interest may wane over time);
4) Meeting up with people who are open to sharing about themselves. In turn, be open to sharing about yourself (while exercising prudent caution, of course);
5) Expecting that on average, you may be disappointed, but with persistence there is a good chance you can form a satisfying relationship;
6) Using online dating services that match you with people similar to you, and which require greater communication and sharing as part of online courtship.
In addition to online dating, pursue conventional means of meeting people, which are still the dominant way that people meet, at least for now. Especially if online dating isn’t working, it is time to let your friends know you are looking, and get out and do more socializing.