“Scientific matchmaking” is exactly what it sounds like, and — between sophisticated online-dating algorithms and DNA-sample testing — it’s becoming an increasingly popular way to find a partner. It’s also the premise of a new reality TV series, Married At First Sight, on the FYI network. The show's four matchmakers "create" couples who are scientifically “perfect" for each other, and then those couples agree to legally wed — before they've even met.
It’s too soon to tell how Married At First Sight’s social experiment will play out, but the concept is certainly intriguing. Can we really use science to find a soul mate? I ask Benjamin Karney, PhD, who works with The Relationship Institute at UCLA. Dr. Karney, who has spent the past 20 years studying how people pair up, says there are two questions worth considering with respect to scientific matchmaking: first, whether science can predict the initial attraction and chemistry between a couple; and second, and whether it can predict long-lasting love.
The former is more straightforward. Much of evolutionary psychology explains whom we’re attracted to and why, although with broad strokes. For example, a matchmaking company called Instant Chemistry pairs clients based on DNA tests of their saliva samples. One of the genetic components they measure is the MHC gene (part of the immune system). Research shows that people find each other more attractive when their MHC genes are dissimilar, because it means their offspring will inherit a wider range of genes for immunity. There’s also evidence that attraction is influenced by our individual levels of dopamine, and that we can unconsciously smell indicators of fertility, which can make people seem more appealing.
But, Dr. Karney warns me that although these patterns can predict whom you'll find physically attractive, it’s much harder to predict whether or not there will be actual chemistry between two people. “There’s a lot of evidence that attraction stems from behavioral exchanges,” Dr. Karney explains. A flirtatious comment, an affectionate touch, a person’s demeanor — these can yield a much stronger influence than physical attractiveness. Behavior can make or break a connection: “If I tell you a joke on a date and you don’t laugh, I might feel bad, and the whole conversation can go wrong,” Dr. Karney explains. “Behavioral exchange is really sensitive to all sorts of things. That doesn’t mean it’s totally random, but it’s hard to predict.”
Because of this unpredictability, Dr. Karney is skeptical that matchmaking services can really forecast the chemistry between two people — especially if they claim to rely on “science.” “It’s like the weather,” Dr. Karney tells me. “I can’t predict exactly what it’s going to be like on a specific date — even though there’s a science behind it. Romantic attraction is exactly the same way.”
Plus, environmental circumstances also influence how we initially perceive people. A study from 2008 asked participants to describe a character in a fictional story, while holding either a hot cup of coffee or an iced coffee. The half that held the hot coffee described the character as “happy,” “generous,” and “good natured.” The other half, which held the iced coffee, used descriptors like “cold,” “stoic,” and “unaffectionate.”
So, if initial attraction is only quasi-predictable, can we use science to decide which pairs are best suited for long-term relationships? Online dating sites say yes. OkCupid, for example, uses sophisticated algorithms to determine compatibility: A user answers questions about his or her personality, interests, and hopes for a partner — before ranking each question based on its importance. Then, the system finds matches with similar qualities on the questions deemed important, and calculates compatibility with each match in percentages. The site, which was founded by a group of Harvard-trained mathematicians, explains: “We use math to get you dates. It’s extremely accurate, as long as you’re honest and you know what you want.”
But, I hear a different story when I talk to Ty Tashiro, PhD, who wrote The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters for the Quest in Enduring Love. Dr. Tashiro isn’t a Harvard-trained mathematician; he's a psychologist. He says there's a fundamental problem in how online dating sites go about “matching” people. In psychology, there are two basic ways to characterize someone’s personality: “vertical qualities,” such as kindness or health, which are hierarchical and objectively better to have than to lack; and “horizontal qualities,” such as musicality or extraversion, which are not hierarchical and are neither better nor worse to have.
Vertical qualities, on the other hand, are a good indicator of relationship success. If someone is kind, emotionally stable, and a good communicator, then his or her relationship is more likely to work — regardless of the qualities of the other person. The algorithm used by eHarmony zeroes in on vertical qualities within its patented “29 dimensions of compatibility,” but Dr. Tashiro says that the “matching” component is worthless. Although it’s seductive to believe that there’s one perfect counterpart for everyone, Dr. Tashiro says science doesn’t support that idea. “Based on the research, you don’t want to be matched with someone — you just want to get away from the people who have undesirable traits, and towards the people who have the good ones.”
Matching algorithms come with two additional problems: first, people aren’t always honest or self-aware enough to answer questions accurately; second, they don’t account for chemistry. This is basically the conclusion that Christopher McKinlay, PhD, arrived at while writing his book Optimal Cupid: Mastering the Hidden Logic of OkCupid. Dr. McKinlay devised an elaborate algorithm to maximize his matches (above 90% compatibility) on the site. The algorithm worked, as far as getting him dates. But, after a month of tireless dating with women above the 90% mark, Dr. McKinlay still wasn’t hitting it off with any of them.
So, pairing people based on their qualities alone doesn’t really work. But, Dr. Tashiro tells me about another theory that explains how to find your ideal partner. He sums it up in one word: acceptance. “If you look at some of the most effective marital therapy treatments now, they really focus on acceptance,” Dr. Tashiro tells me. He quickly adds that it does matter whom you choose to be in a relationship with in the first place — mostly to the degree that you choose someone kind, loving, and emotionally stable. Whether or not you're both sports fans, however, doesn't make much of a difference.
This theory is shared by John and Julie Gottman, married psychologists who run The Gottman Institute in Seattle. Their research suggests that making relationships work comes down to compassion, acceptance, and striving to meet each others’ needs. Basically, when you treat your partner nicely — no matter who that partner is — the relationship will flourish.
Perhaps, then, scientific matchmaking misses the point. There isn’t a method that can definitively pair anyone with his or her “perfect match,” because the concept of a "perfect match" is inherently flawed — and far too black-and-white. But, we can do what it takes to make our relationships a little better, happier, and more balanced. It doesn’t take science — just kindness.