My friends, Jean and David, met each other through the online dating site,eHarmony. He was in Australia.  She was in Singapore.  Although they probably remember it differently (hormones hamper memory) here’s how their union played out:

Boy met girl online. 
Boy talked to girl on the phone.
Boy flew to visit girl.
Boy bonded and never flew home.

Jean and David toss in a few more details when recounting their own story.  But the bottom line is that a couple of great people met online, and two years later, married in Hawaii. For many of the worldwide millions who flock to online dating sites, that’s the story they dream about.  

But are online dating sites like eHarmony worth paying upwards of $500 a year? And what about free sites likeOKCupid andMingle2.com?  Are they really worth the time?  Jean and David would likely say yes.  But a jackpot winner, according to a pessimist, would swear by the lottery. 

Perhaps I wear rose-colored classes.  I want to believe that the profiling strategies used by online dating sites actually work. But pessimists make a few worthy points.  Most online connections start with a lie.  One of my friends (I’ll call her Heather) uses an online dating site.  She lists her age as 38.  But she’s 46. According to Catalina L. Toma, an assistant professor in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, roughly 81 percent of people lie about their height, weight or age on their online profiles.  Those trying to trick their would-be soul mates could get dumped at the first coffee.

 In his book,The Upside of Irrationality, Duke University professor Dan Ariely says online dating is a great idea, in theory.  But in reality, it usually disappoints. At the MIT Media Lab, Dan Ariely, Zoe Chance and Mike Norton set up an online dating study.  They asked participants to rate their preference for online dating, compared to offline dating or curling up solo on the sofa with a movie.  Offline dating was their top choice.  The movie ranked second.

Leslie Davison, a 45 year-old woman in Breckenridge, Colorado understands why. “I got tired of trying to find somebody online. It took crazy amounts of time.” Dan Ariely’s study found that “people spent an average of 5.2 hours per week searching profiles and 6.7 hours per week emailing potential partners.”  He says online daters spent a mere 1.8 hours per week meeting potential partners, after nearly 12 hours of effort. 

Some online sites advertise effective algorithms used to match personalities. The New York Daily News quoted researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  They claim that more than one third of U.S. marriages were the result of an initial online date.  But the data could be questionable. The online dating firm, eHarmony, paid for the research.

Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Northwestern University,Eli Finkel, says online matchmaking is misguided. The developers of matchmaking algorithms, he says, “focus on the information that is easy for them to assess, like similarity in personality and attitudes, rather than the information that relationship science has found to be crucial for predicting long-term relationship well-being.” So, what are these great predictors of compatibility?  According to Finkel, they’re a couple’s interactive style and their ability to navigate stressful circumstances.

That explains why a friend of mine in college was always thrilled if his date lost her purse, couldn’t initially find their meeting place or spilled food on her dress.  “I got the most useful peak into her personality,” he used to say, “when I could see how she handled stress.”

Ariely says online dating sites incorrectly assume people are more like “products” than “experience goods.” That makes sense.  But I still think that those seeking soul mates through online sites could succeed if they’re persistent and honest.  Science may call me a hopeless romantic.  But what does science really know about love?