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Online Dating Might Not Help You To Find The One But Can Offer Some Insights.



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Online dating might not help you to find the one. But the data from dating apps offers some tantalising insights.

In one night, Matt Taylor finished Tinder. He ran a script on his computer that automatically swiped right on every profile that fell within his preferences. By the morning, he had swiped through 25,000 people’s profiles.

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Nine of those people matched with him, and one of those matches, Cherie, agreed to go on a date. Fortunately Cherie found this story endearing and now they are both happily married. If there is a more efficient use of a dating app, I do not know it.

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Taylor clearly did not want to leave anything to chance. Why trust the algorithm to present the right profiles when you can swipe right on everyone? No one will be able to repeat this feat, though, as the app is more secure than it was several years ago and the algorithm has been updated to penalise those who swipe right on everyone. Or so people believe.

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For those who might struggle with "packet sniffing" – the means by which Matt gamed Tinder – the tantalising promise that maybe, by putting our faith in an algorithm, an app or website might be able to find the right person is thoroughly appealing.

Break-ups are never easy, but why do some people fight to win an ex back while others run a mile? The temptation to rekindle an old flame is deeply rooted in our psychology.

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T

Tears streamed down her face, as Yannes told George their relationship was no longer working out. Along the promenade, the 28-year-old from Hong Kong heaved a sigh of relief and slowly walked back home, with her heart broken.

It was the third time the two had broken up in just the course of two months. This time, Yannes said there was no way back.

“I missed him a lot and I constantly replayed our happy memories in my mind,” says Yannes of each of their previous break-ups. The nostalgia for their happier times soon got the better of her “so I went back again and again. But our mindsets are too different to begin with and that hasn’t changed. I’ve deleted his presence on all my social media, and I just know that this is the last time we will be together.”

The desire to rekindle an old flame turns out to be quite common throughout our lifetimes. Almost two-third of college students have had an on-again/ off-again relationshipwhile half will continue a sexual relationship after a break-up.

The blurriness of relationships continues even after vows have been exchanged. Over one-third of cohabiting couples and one-fifth of married couples have experienced a break-up and renewal in their current relationship.

A feeling that has inspired countless songs, novels, plays, reality shows and films – breaking up and seeking forgiveness is perhaps unsurprisingly deeply rooted in our psychologies. But why are we prone to rehash a relationship that failed?

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  • When the break-up first happens, people tend to go through what Helen Fisher, a neurologist at the Kinsey Institute, calls a “protest” phase, during which the rejected party becomes obsessed with winning back the person who calls it quits.

    Younger people might be more prone to on-again/ off-again relationships (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Younger people might be more prone to on-again/ off-again relationships (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Fisher and a group of scientists put 15 people who were recently rejected by a romantic partner through a brain scan, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When they were told to look at the image of their former beloved, the areas in their brain associated with gains and losses, craving and emotion regulation were activated, as well as brain regions for romantic love and attachment.

    After rejection, you don’t stop loving that person; in fact, you can love that person even more – Helen Fisher

    “After rejection, you don’t stop loving that person; in fact, you can love that person even more. The major brain region associated with addiction is active,” Fisher says.

    At this moment, the rejected lovers experience elevated levels of dopamine and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which is linked to raised stress levels and the urge to call for help, according to Fisher. She calls this “frustration attraction”. This is thought to be why, in a moment of high emotions, some spurned people resort to dramatic gestures to get back together with the object of their desire.

    Active in both the rejected men and women was the nucleus accumbens, a major brain region associated with addiction. The participants in Fishers study thought about their rejecter “obsessively” and craved emotional union with that partner.

    “The separation anxiety is like a puppy taken away from its mother and put in the kitchen by itself: it runs around in circles, barks and whines,” Fisher adds. “The couples who break up and get back together multiple times are still chemically addicted to each other, so they are not able to cleanly split until that [addiction] runs out.”

    As well as the chemical reactions in our brain, people push to renew their once-doomed relationships because of a whole host of behavioural reasons. If a partner has dated someone new after the split this can speed up the erasure of old feelings, reducing the likelihood of getting back together. While other people experience more synchronised levels of passion after the break-up, increasing their likelihood of forgiveness, and so on.

    A sense of unresolvedness in the relationship could make it tempting for the partners to try it out again, says Rene Dailey, a professor who researches on-again/off-again relationships at the University of Texas.

    Bad break-up behaviours have been around for a long time, but more recently they have been given their own terms, like ghosting (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Bad break-up behaviours have been around for a long time, but more recently they have been given their own terms, like ghosting (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    “The couple might experience a lot of conflict [during] the break-up but still feel connected or love for their partner,” says Dailey. “So it could be more about not being able to manage or resolve the conflict. If the break-ups are ambiguous, people might feel like they made positive changes to the relationship and try again.”

    Dailey also says attachment theory, popular is some areas of psychology and much covered in the media to explain some parts of compatibility in dating, does not explain romantic reconciliation.

    Attachment theory suggests that caregivers’ behaviour towards children shapes their attachment style in their adult life – they can be secure, anxious or avoidant towards other adults later on. A secure attachment style signifies a healthy emotional communication, while anxiously-attached individuals tend to doubt their self-worth and go to great lengths to restore proximity. A third group, those with avoidant attachment, are perceived as emotionally unavailable and self-sufficient by defensively refusing proximity.

    According to this theory, partners with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are said to be attracted to each other and find it difficult to break up permanently. But, research appears not to support this.

    “We found very little differences between on-off and non-cyclical partners in attachment anxiety and avoidance, nor differences in how these attachment orientations are related to relational quality for such partners. Even though attachment theory seems like a good explanation, we haven’t found this to be the case,” says Dailey.

    Like with Yannes, nostalgia and loneliness do play a role in pursuing forgiveness. “When people do find themselves wanting to get back together with an ex even if they didn’t treat them well, it is usually related to feelings of loneliness, missing the positive things about the relationship, and the sense of loss and grief that comes with a break-up,” says Kristen Mark, a professor specialising in sexual health at the University of Kentucky. She says that nostalgia for past relationships often first emerges when the current relationship quality begins to suffer.

    People who fear being single report a stronger desire to get back with an ex (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    People who fear being single report a stronger desire to get back with an ex (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Those with a stronger fear of being single report a greater longing for their ex-partners and a stronger desire to renew the relationship. This might also explain Yannes’s behaviour in the current climate. She says she felt lonely during the coronavirus outbreak, prompting her to reach out to her previous lover and attempt to mend their relationship.

    The loneliness that locked-down single people are feeling could be exacerbated by social media, as it makes it easier for one to keep their ex-lovers in sight. The desire to avoid loneliness at all costs can drive people back in the arms of their ex-partners, according to Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.

    We tend to see past relationships in a rosier light than they necessarily were – Gail Saltz

    “The invention of Facebook and other social media sites enable people to find old exes and bring them together,” says Saltz. “We tend to see past relationships in a rosier light than they necessarily were and forget that people can change over time as well. Social media makes it harder to have closure and move on – stalking an ex’s posts can be very unhealthy.”

    With social media making separations stickier, it is perhaps unsurprising that Millennials and Gen Z could be even more susceptible to negative break-up behaviours, according to Berit Brogaard, a professor at the University of Miami who specialises in the philosophy of emotions and authored the book On Romance.

    “Bad break-up behaviours have been around for as long as romantic love has,” says Brogaard. “But that has become so prevalent that they have been categorised and named – ghosting, submarining, benching, bread-crumbing, orbiting, zombieing and so on.”

    Younger Millennials and Gen Zs are much more vulnerable to anxiety and depression and depend much more strongly on social approval than older Millennials, so the former may well be prone to on-again/ off-again relationships, Brogaard added.

    If Millennials and Gen Zs are born with laptops and tablets on their hands, they tend to look for dating solutions online. As a result, personal coaching businesses in the US alone were valued at more than $1bn (£0.8bn) in 2018 and a niche market for the heartbroken has started to emerge. Break-up coaches now promise to help their clients move on or rekindle former romance. Many offer tips and strategies on their blogs, YouTube videos and podcasts which register views in the millions.

    Keeping your distance after a break up might be a good thing regardless of whether you want to win them back (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Alamy)

    Keeping your distance after a break up might be a good thing regardless of whether you want to win them back (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Alamy)

    Among some popular ones, a “no-contact rule” (ranging from 30 days to 60 days, some even say infinitely), is a common tactic. This time is supposed to be used to work on self-development. Many suggest sending texts to their exes to remind them of the good times they had and show them how they have changed during this period.

    Neurologist and anthropologist Helen Fisher agrees a “no-contact rule” can be beneficial. She says a period of at least 90 days is proven to be effective to abstain from addictive substances. But would this work with relationships?

    “The way to accelerate mending a broken heart is similar to treating addiction – you put away their things, stop looking at their social media and have no contact with them,” Fisher says.

    Brogaard also says that the rule “does have some basis in science”. The intensity of strong emotions – including anger, betrayal and so on – tends to lessen with time.

    Lilian, another Hong Konger in her late 20s, was one of the heartbroken internet users who searched for ways to reconcile with her ex boyfriend on the internet a few days after a break-up. She bumped into a dating coach’s videos on social media.

    Lilian says that the coach offered tips to create distance with the ex-partner and work on re-attraction. “It comforted me after the separation, but it also made me more anxious. The break-up coach suggested waiting for 30 days to contact the ex-boyfriend again, and to dress better the next time we meet to show that I have improved myself, but I couldn’t wait that long,” Lilian said.

    Although these coaches might come as an instant comfort after a heartbreak, their suggestions might not be scientifically credible. “Break-up coaches tend to lack proper training – self-training or academic – in relevant fields such as neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy or social work,” says Brogaard.

    One tip that so-called relationship coaches suggest is to try to improve your image the next time you meet your ex (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    One tip that so-called relationship coaches suggest is to try to improve your image the next time you meet your ex (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    The psychologist adds that some even plagiarise others who have relevant training, but they are unable to fact-check the information they lift from others.

    “They can be more expensive than a good therapist, but without any evidence that the advice they offer is sound, you might be wasting your time and money buying their products,” she says. “Their books are sometimes more affordable, but not peer-reviewed and are for the most part practically useless.”

    They can be more expensive than a good therapist, but you might be wasting your time and money buying their products – Berit Brogaard

    Experts still have reservations about the industry, which has little to no regulations. Dailey seconded Brogaard’s comment that a lot of break-up coaches “do not have the qualifications to give advice,” while Saltz says that it’s not a 'regulated area'.

    “Pretty much anyone can call themselves a coach. So I’d be very cautious on that front. What amount, intensity and level of formalised training has this person really had? A several day or multi weekend course does not a therapist make. Who trained them, what type of training?” Saltz says.

    Brogaard advises the heartbroken to read literature on break-ups and relationships from legitimate sources, including academic review papers on Google Scholar, instead of spending money on break-up coaching. But she warns against spending a lot of time and energy to win someone back.

    “If you have to go out of your way to get back with your ex, are they really worth it?”

    They said there are no “tricks” to reconciliation but to talk about what went wrong in the failed relationship with honesty.

    For those who cannot reconcile with their former romance, the silver linings are that after the “protest” stage, their brain can go into a stage of “resignation/despair”, then finally acceptance, indifference and growth, Fisher says.

    “You experience extreme pain and anxiety, but finally there’s recovery,” concludes Fisher. “You never forget the person who dumps you, but you move on and love someone new.”

    --

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    We often see a relationship as an exclusive understanding between two people. But this norm is increasingly coming under scrutiny as people find other ways to redefine romantic love.

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    “What does exclusivity mean to you?” Asks Amy Hart, a contestant on UK reality TV show Love Island in 2019. Her partner, Curtis Pritchard, is cornered and she knows it. He had been kissing other girls behind her back. Pritchard shrinks into his seat as Hart eloquently and calmly lists the issues with their relationship, starting with how he could possibly have romantic feelings for two people at the same time, how she needed him, and how he had let her down.

    Hart was operating under the assumption that a romantic relationship involves two people only, and that Pritchard was breaking the rules. But what we know about human relationships is that historically, they were much more complicated than the monogamy that is normal in many societies now. Might we return to our non-monogamous roots?

    Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) allows both parties in a couple to be free to explore relationships with other people. This could incorporate everything from polyamory to swinging and other forms of “open” relationship. Regardless of the form it takes, one of the defining features of CNM is that partners discuss and agree the boundaries, such as for how far they can go, and when and where. This definition means that Pritchard’s antics wouldn’t come under this banner, as Hart had not signed up for them. But the presence of non-monogamy in a sizeable minority of the population might explain why Pritchard acted the way he did.

    Despite the prevalence of monogamy, humans are pretty obsessed with having sex with people other than their partner. Psychologist Justin Lehmiller asked 4,000 Americans to describe their sexual fantasies for his book Tell Me What You Want. Having a threesome is the most popular fantasy, by some margin. And what is a threesome if not consensual non-monogamy?

    Three isn't always a crowd - a threesome is by far the most common sexual fantasy (Credit: Getty Images)

    Three isn't always a crowd - a threesome is by far the most common sexual fantasy (Credit: Getty Images)

    “If we think about all the people in relationships, about 5% would define as CNM,” says Amy Muise, assistant professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. But including those who have tried CNM boosts the figure. “In lifetime experience, 21% of people have been non-monogamous at some point.”

    Having a threesome is the most popular sexual fantasy, by some margin

    To put that in perspective, 21% is slightly less than the number of US households who speak a language other than English at home (21.9%). “I wouldn't be surprised if it was more common,” says Amy Moors, assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University, California. “Something called social desirability explains why people give slightly conservative answers to questions. It might be why someone overestimates how often they eat five fruits or vegetables a day, or underestimates how much they drink.”

    For that sizeable minority, the opportunities to meet with partners outside their household may be few right now, as measures to prevent social interactions step up in countries affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. People in CNM relationships might find themselves spending a greater amount of time with their live-in partners while having to get used to seeing their other partners a lot less. How this will affect their wellbeing is unclear, although well-established research on long-distance relationships suggests that long-distance relationships can be perfectly fulfilling. And, as social psychology tells us, in more ordinary times there are reasons to believe that people in CNM relationships may experience advantages their monogamous peers do not.

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  • At what point monogamy began to occur in humans is up for debate. Some anthropologists cite the fact that ancient human ancestors were strongly sexually dimorphic â€“ that males and females were different sizes and shapes – as evidence of non-monogamy. A high degree of sexual dimorphism suggests that there are strong sexually selective pressures on one (or both) genders. In some species, like gorillas, larger males are more likely to be sexually successful by using their greater size to fight off competition from other males. A dominant male mountain gorilla will monopolise 70% of all copulations, for example, creating a polygynous society (one where many females mate with one male).

    Sexual dimorphism does not always work this way. Species that use ostentatious displays of fitness, like birds with beautiful plumes and brightly coloured fish, compete for the attention of mates, rather than physically fighting off competition. The difference here is that often these are not social species, unlike humans, so one male or female would not necessarily be able to control all of their potential mates in one area.

    The ancient human fossil record is patchy, though. Similar logic is also used to argue the exact opposite – that our ancient relatives had a similar level of dimorphism to us. This can be justified by looking at  different fossils. Therefore monogamy might have first occurred much earlier.

    The diversity, or lack-thereof, of the human Y-chromosome has also been used to suggest that humans were polygynous until relatively recently. Again, anthropologists contest the evidence, but some have suggested that the relative similarity in male genetic data suggests that only a few males were mating in our evolutionary past. More recently, this diversity has increased, which suggests that more males have been able to mate because of monogamy.

    The institution of marriage only became widespread after the concept of land ownership arose, raising questions about inheritance (Credit: Getty Images)

    The institution of marriage only became widespread after the concept of land ownership arose, raising questions about inheritance (Credit: Getty Images)

    We know from archaeological evidence that ancient humans lived in small, close extended family groups. Computer modelling of hunter-gatherer societies suggests that they needed to mate with individuals outside of their local group in order to maintain the population as a whole. There would have therefore been a large flow of mating individuals between hunter-gatherer societies. Maintaining a family whose exact genetic lineage was known would have been impossible.

    This model suggests that hunter-gatherers were serially monogamous – where couples stay together exclusively for the time taken to wean a child before moving on to find a new partner. This has been shown to be sexually advantageous for modern men, which might explain why men are more interested in open relationships.

    Lehmiller’s research on fantasies found that men are more interested in group sex (about 26% of men compared to 8% of women). Similar trends are also seen for other types of “social sex”, too, like interest in going to sex parties or swingers clubs (17% of men compared to 7% of women). However, those women who were interested in these fantasies were more likely to fulfil them. The number of people in the same sample who reported having taking part in group sex, for example, was 12% of men and 6% of women. It would seem, then, that women are more likely to find the right opportunities.

    What we do know is that in 85% of modern human societies globally, forms of non-monogamy are sanctioned. Even the Old Testament is filled with many references to polygamy. However, the default condition in most societies is still monogamy. It might be common now, but however you look at it, historically humans were not monogamous like we are today. So why is lifetime monogamy now seen as the default?

    “It is tricky to succinctly answer without saying the media,” says Moors, emphasising the impact that our art and culture play on us while growing up. “In the most part, when growing up our parents are married or trying to be monogamous. In most places worldwide we have the institution of marriage.”

    “Since people started taking up land and calling it their own, that is when marriage took off because that was one clear way to keep control of your property and have it go to your family,” says Moors. “From that point we started prioritising a couple and heterosexuality.”

    Is it better to see other people?

    Repeatedly, research on CNM shows that couples with differing sexual interests report being better off when they have multiple sexual partners. “In a relationship often there is a discrepancy between both partners’ interests,” says Muise. “However, people with multiple partnerships might be more fulfilled overall. If you have the interest in being sexual with other people it can be healthy to explore that.”

    What has been lacking in research on CNM to date has been large longitudinal studies, where groups of people who are considering opening up their relationships are followed for several years, starting even before they have that first conversation with their partner.

    Some people may play different roles in a CNM relationship, with some offering nurturing care and others fulfilling erotic needs (Credit: Getty Images)

    Some people may play different roles in a CNM relationship, with some offering nurturing care and others fulfilling erotic needs (Credit: Getty Images)

    Some studies, however, are starting to fill that gap. For one, CNM-curious people and people who had never considered being open were recruited for a series of questionnaires about their relationship and sexual satisfaction. In the beginning, none of them had approached their partner to discuss the idea of opening up to other people. At the end, they were asked the same questions about how satisfied they were in their romantic lives, but also had to report whether they had opened their relationship.

    “For the people who wanted to open their relationship and who did end up doing it, their satisfaction was significantly higher,” says Samantha Joel, assistant professor of social psychology at Western University in London, Canada. “Meanwhile, for the people who thought about it but didn't, their satisfaction dipped, but barely significantly.”

    For the people who wanted to open their relationship and who did end up doing it, their satisfaction was significantly higher – Samantha Joel

    Joel suggests that the uplift in satisfaction among people who switched to CNM might have been the result of a dragging effect. A better quality of sex life with a secondary partner drags up satisfaction with the primary partner, because suddenly the pressure of one person having to provide all of their enjoyment is removed.

    “We know that when people are happier with their sex life they communicate better anyway,” says Joel. “But people in CNM report having open communication – it is difficult to be CNM if you are not talking about boundaries. Whereas in monogamous couples, those discussions about boundaries often don’t happen.”

    Emotional satisfaction – feelings of security, nurturing and closeness – tends to increase in normal relationships over time. Meanwhile, spontaneity and excitement, which is linked to eroticism, decreases.

    “The beginning is sexy and steamy, but then it becomes predictable,” says Rhonda Balzarini, a psychologist at York University. “Novelty is hard to maintain and there goes the steaminess.”

    Balzarini gives the example of a primary partner with whom you might be legally married, live, have kids and generally have the responsibilities associated with living a monogamous life. With all the work this entails, there is more need for predictability – which is not sexy, she says. A secondary partner might never share these responsibilities with you, and so, the deterioration in the excitement of your relationship might not happen. As a result, secondary partners tend to provide a higher frequency of sex with fewer commitments.

    “I think generally there is this dance between novelty and security and being in a long-term CNM relationship is a way to try to meet both needs simultaneously,” says Joel. “It’s not the only way, but it is one way and it works for some people.”

    There are about as many ways to have a CNM relationship as there are people who are in them. Anita Cassidy, one of the interviewees in the video below, talks about how her and her partner manage theirs. Cassidy lives with her two children and maintains relationships with multiple partners who visit her home throughout the week. Cassidy was interviewed for this video before the Covid-19 outbreak began, and social distancing or self-isolation might limit how frequently she is able to see her partners.

    Consensual non-monogamy

    How do you deal with jealousy?

    The benefits of CNM are most strongly seen when primary partners are both motivated to support each other’s happiness, says Muise. “It seems like there is something about a primary wanting to see their partner sexually fulfilled but not needing to be the one who does it,” she says. “When they see their primary partner motivated by their happiness they are more comfortable getting their needs met.” 

    There is something about a primary wanting to see their partner sexually fulfilled but not needing to be the one who does it – Amy Muise

    This describes a psychological concept called compersion – being able to experience pleasure by seeing another’s pleasure. It might be more familiar to you outside the realms of romantic relationships. Think, for example, of watching someone open a gift. But compersion has also been applied to seeing someone else sexually gratified.

    So how do people in CNM couples override any feelings of jealousy? For men, jealousy is more strongly felt in relation to sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity, writes Katherine Aumer, a researcher at Hawaii Pacific University, and her co-authors in a study on compersion in both monogamous and CNM couples. We would expect this if men are more strongly motivated than women to know the paternity of their children, as evolutionary theory would suggest (Read more about what we get wrong about cheating). Identifying the maternity of their child is not hugely complicated for women.

    Women are, however, more likely to feel jealous about emotional infidelity, Aumer continues. With regards to the evolutionary pressures of raising a child, women are strongly motivated to keep their male partner around so that he can provide food and protection for them and their child while they are breastfeeding. If the man appears to be emotionally invested in another woman, the mother may not be receiving the best quality food, protection and shelter from him.

    Why do people choose non-monogamy?

    There is evidence that certain people might be better than others at managing multiple relationships at the same time. Attachment theory describes how feelings of security or insecurity shape our relationships and might explain why some are less willing to share a partner (Read more about how attachment theory explains rebounding).

    Good communication is a key component of CNM relationships, but might slip down the priority list in monogamous relationships (Credit: Getty Images)

    Good communication is a key component of CNM relationships, but might slip down the priority list in monogamous relationships (Credit: Getty Images)

    Chris Fraley from the University of Illinois has been collecting attachment data from respondents to an online questionnaire for two decades. In total, about 200,000 people have taken this test, and many other researchers rely on this wealth of data to establish norms for all sorts of behaviours. Using this data, Moors says she has found that people engaging in poly relationships are lower on anxious attachment and avoidant attachment compared to others. However, she points out that this is a correlational finding. It could be the case that only secure, non-anxious, non-avoidant people are attracted to this lifestyle.

    What the psychological profiles of CNM people might suggest is that they have emotional needs that cannot be satisfied by one person. “People in poly relationships might have higher needs in general,” says Balzarini. “We find monogamous people are on an even keel in terms of their needs for nurturance and eroticism. But poly people have high highs and low lows. They might be people who need both things simultaneously and it is hard to experience those things with only one partner. A primary partner who is nurturing is unlikely to also be exciting in an erotic way.”

    We already know how to have close loving relationships with multiple people, but we are expected to believe that romantic love is limited? – Amy Moors

    That said, there is very little in the way of a profile that you can build about CNM people, according to Moors. She says that there is no correlation between age, income, location, education, race, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation and CNM in her research. People who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are more likely to be CNM, but that is the only pattern.

    For something that seems to span all walks of life, there is still a relentless stigma associated with non-monogamous lifestyles. Moors gives the example of how normal it is to think of platonic or familial love as endless, yet for some reason we consider romantic love finite. “We already know how to have close loving relationships with multiple people,” she says. “But we are expected to believe that romantic love is limited? How many best mates do you have? Oh, that’s disgusting you have one too many? That would be a ridiculous thing to say.”

    We ask a lot from our partners. We expect them to be our life coach, best friend, confidant. “We don’t need all of those things from one person,” says Moors. Perhaps we would be better off by spreading our needs between more than one person.

    --

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    Read more
    Online dating might not help you to find the one. But the data from dating apps offers some tantalising insights.

    Article continues below

    I

    In one night, Matt Taylor finished Tinder. He ran a script on his computer that automatically swiped right on every profile that fell within his preferences. By the morning, he had swiped through 25,000 people’s profiles.

    Nine of those people matched with him, and one of those matches, Cherie, agreed to go on a date. Fortunately Cherie found this story endearing and now they are both happily married. If there is a more efficient use of a dating app, I do not know it.

    Taylor clearly did not want to leave anything to chance. Why trust the algorithm to present the right profiles when you can swipe right on everyone? No one will be able to repeat this feat, though, as the app is more secure than it was several years ago and the algorithm has been updated to penalise those who swipe right on everyone. Or so people believe.

    For those who might struggle with "packet sniffing" – the means by which Matt gamed Tinder – the tantalising promise that maybe, by putting our faith in an algorithm, an app or website might be able to find the right person is thoroughly appealing.

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  • “It’s something that single people want to exist – it’s the romantic equivalent of an easy weight-loss plan,” says Dr Samantha Joel, assistant professor at Western University in London, Canada. “People want it because meeting one-on-one is exhausting. Like most things that we wish we had, I think it deserves particular scepticism when someone claims they can do it.”

    Lots of apps and websites claim to be able to use data to sort through profiles for better matches. By completing their personality tests, they say they can save your thumb the effort of swiping. The issue for scientists who might want to investigate their data, and journalists who want to fact-check their claims, is that the algorithms are the intellectual property of these companies, so they are not publicly available. Their entire business is based on developing smart match-making algorithms and keeping their formulas private.

    So what do scientists do if they want to investigate predictors of attraction? They make their own.

    Lots of apps and websites claim to be able to use data to sort through profiles for better matches, do they work? (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Lots of apps and websites claim to be able to use data to sort through profiles for better matches, do they work? (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    In one example, Joel and colleagues asked people to complete a questionnaire about themselves and what they were looking for in a partner. Some of the questions were very similar to what you might expect on any dating website, and many more went way beyond. Daters were asked if they agreed with statements from “I’m an upbeat person” to “I worry about being abandoned” and “If I could live my life over, I would change everything”.

    In all, they completed more than 100 traits and preferences. Then, after a series of four-minute-long speed dates, they were asked if they had romantic interest in any of the other daters.

    Now, the researchers had all three things they needed to be able to predict romantic desire. The first is actor desire, or, on average how much people liked their dates compared to others. This captured how choosy each person was. Did they click with a lot of people or did they find it hard to feel chemistry? By comparing daters to each other on choosiness the researchers could control for people who might make a lot of potential connections mostly because they were quite open-minded about who they would like to date.

    By subtracting choosiness and attractiveness from daters’ scores of romantic interest, the researchers had a more accurate measure of compatibility

    Second is partner desire, or, how much did people like you compared to their other dates. The reverse of actor desire, this is a measure of average attractiveness.

    By subtracting choosiness and attractiveness from daters’ scores of romantic interest, the researchers had a more accurate measure of compatibility. “Some people are more attractive than others and we can predict who tends to get the most matches,” says Joel. “That is not the goal of these matching websites. They are not saying they will filter your pool so you only have attractive people to choose from.”

    Joel found that her algorithm could predict actor desire and partner desire, but not compatibility. Not even a little bit. It could only predict negative percentages of variance – which is like being accurate less than 0% of the time. This might sound like a bit of a head scratcher, but, Joel says that her algorithm would have been better off using mean results for every dater rather than offering a tailored response. “It was completely useless,” says Joel. “It really should have done better.”

    “My take is that when two people actually meet they form a shared dynamic that is more than the sum of its parts and cannot be predicted a priori,” says Joel. “Their individual preferences do not make up the substance of what they find attractive. My rating of whether I found you funny after meeting you will predict whether I like you, but my desire for a funny person and your measure of whether you are funny do not because we might not agree on a sense of humour.”

    Finding a way to make accurate predictions is not going to be straightforward.

    Successful predictions

    Another team of researchers seem to have successfully predicted romantic desire using an algorithm. Picture a house filled with potential dates. The higher up in the house someone is, the kinder they are. The further towards the back, the funnier. The further to the right, the more physically attractive, and so on until you have collected data on 23 different preferences.

    People judge online profiles before they have a chance to meet their potential dates – which complicates predictions (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    People judge online profiles before they have a chance to meet their potential dates – which complicates predictions (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Now, depending on your preferences, you can imagine your perfect partner is standing somewhere near the bathroom sink, for example. There might be other people nearby, who would be nearly as attractive. There might be someone even funnier and more beautiful than them, but a little less kind, stood in another room downstairs.

    That is how Dr Daniel Conroy-Beam, an assistant professor from the University of California Santa Barbara, US, describes the algorithm. The distance between a potential partner and your idealised partner in your hypothetical house was the best predictor for attraction.

    In this particular study the daters were presented with fake profiles of made-up people, not real potential dates. Although, Conroy-Beam points out, people judge online profiles before they have a chance to meet or even talk to their potential dates, so you could consider online profiles hypothetical, up to a point.

    Clearly, having a list of preferences makes things complicated

    Conroy-Beam’s algorithm assumes that all preferences are weighted evenly, which might not be the case. If physical attraction matters much more to you than kindness then perhaps that person waiting downstairs is a better candidate after all. “The next step is to incorporate that weighting,” says Conroy-Beam. “I would be very surprised if weighting didn’t matter.”

    Clearly, having a list of preferences makes things complicated. In what order do you rank them? Are your assessments of your qualities the same as mine? All of this makes predicting romantic interest difficult. Perhaps a more straightforward option is to look at deal-breakers – what would rule someone out for you?

    In another of Joel’s studies, students were asked what they would consider an absolute deal-breaker in a potential partner – traits like whether they smoke or are particularly religious. Later in the semester they completed a dating profile and sifted through other people’s. After whittling their choices down to a favourite, the researchers offered to swap their contact details. However, at the same time they were shown a bit more information about their chosen partner, which included the fact that they had two deal-breaker qualities.

    For 74% of people who thought they might get a real date out of the interaction, the deal-breakers became non-issues. They were prepared to overlook them. Even for people who knew that the date was only hypothetical, 40% still agreed. It turns out, when presented with an opportunity to meet someone who is supposed to be interested in us, we are much more flexible about who we are interested in.

    People feel like they need to be choosy because that is our culture. But realistically people are pretty open to a broad range of partners – Samantha Joel

    “We wanted them to have some buy in first before we told them about the deal-breakers,” says Joel, “because often deal-breakers show up on the first date or the second or the fifth.” You might not find out that someone is a smoker, or that they have another horrible quality, until you meet in person, or even several dates down the line. We hardly broadcast our less desirable qualities at the first opportunity.

     

    Often deal-breakers only show up after the first date – so how are you supposed to know is someone is a turn-off unless you meet them? (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Often deal-breakers only show up after the first date – so how are you supposed to know is someone is a turn-off unless you meet them? (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    Why might we not strictly observe our deal-breakers? Joel has her own theory: “I think that people just aren't actually very choosy. People feel like they need to be choosy because that is our culture. But realistically people are pretty open to a broad range of partners.”

    Putting your faith in an app

    If in real life we are much more flexible than we say we are on paper, perhaps being overly fussy about what we’re looking for in someone’s dating profile makes it harder to find the right person. At one end of the online dating spectrum are sites like Match.com and eHarmony who, as part of the registration process, ask users to complete reasonably extensive questionnaires. These sites hope to reduce the amount of sorting the user needs to do by collecting data and filtering their best options.

    “We look at core values, we decode those and we match those with people who are as similar as possible,” says Rachael Lloyd, the in-house relationship expert at eHarmony. “From all our years of research, the more you have in common the more likely a relationship is to be a success. We start with 150 questions, although these have changed and been refined over time based on machine learning.”

    Lloyd explains that the goal of the eHarmony algorithm is to find ‘satisfying relationships’, which is slightly different to the goal when the company was founded in 2000. Then, marriage was much more important. This shift has reflected the slight change in attitudes over the past two decades.

    Researchers from the University of Oxford analysed data from 150,000 of eHarmony’s subscribers and corroborated Joel’s findings on deal-breakers: generally, people are less bothered by things like smoking and drinking than they might predict.

    “We also saw that people who are altruistic generally do well,” says Lloyd. “People who have conversations about charity and giving have 34% more interest in them. As our algorithm demonstrates, kindness is still really important. More than being highly sexualised – that tends to not work so well.”

    I would argue Tinder is much better because they are showing you people and asking if you like them – Samantha Joel

    The data also suggests that being very, very attractive as a man offers no advantages over being fairly average. Women like men who rate themselves as five out of 10 as much as men who think they are 10 out of 10s, whereas men would ideally date someone who self-rates their physical appearance as eight out of 10.

    At the other end of the spectrum, apps like Tinder and Bumble ask for very little in the way of preferences before they start to show you profiles: usually, the gender of the person you are interested in, an age range and distance from where you live. These apps refine as they learn about the user’s preferences.

    “I would argue Tinder is much better because they are showing you people and asking if you like them,” says Joel. “It seems to me based on the data that preliminary filters don’t work.”

    We have different sets of preferences depending on whether we are looking for something long-term or short-term (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    We have different sets of preferences depending on whether we are looking for something long-term or short-term (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/ Getty Images)

    “If [online dating sites] are going to match you with someone long term, that requires a lot of long-term data. This claim is exciting to me but to properly test it we would need to follow people for years,” says Joel. “Another possible reason that we might not have found something is that people don’t know what they want. I might not have a lot of insight into what I find attractive and what I am actually like.”

    Long term success

    We have different sets of preferences depending on whether we are looking for something long-term or short-term, Conroy-Beam says. Generally speaking, when were are only interested in short-term relationships we prioritise physical attraction, whereas for long-term relationships kindness and other signals that someone would be caring are a greater priority.

    But, Conroy-Beam says that other preferences also imply whether we are looking for the one, and these preferences can be grouped into sets. So, in theory, you can make “a pretty good guess” whether someone is interested in a meaningful, long-term relationship by looking at what set of traits they are most interested in.

    Perhaps, then, romantic desire cannot be accurately predicted before you have a chance to speak to or meet your potential partners

    For Lloyd, the data collected from eHarmony’s users suggests that openness is a really important trait for long-term success. “The more genuine you are and confident you are, the better you tend to do,” says Lloyd. “That approach to dating really works. Online dating has given us so many benefits. But it has also created a sense that we are all superficial and shallow. The important thing to stress is that this takes time.”

    Perhaps, then, romantic desire cannot be accurately predicted before you have a chance to speak to or meet your potential partners. We are still reliant on being able to pick up on intangible cues from talking to each other, but at least there is some evidence that good guesses can be made about who we might generally be suited to. “What is definitely clear,” says Conroy-Beam, “is that humans make diabolically complicated choices.”

    By William Park

    13th November 2019


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