As I See It: Virtual Pheromones
October 7, 2013 Victor Rozek
Helen Morrison was a single woman with an age-old dilemma. Entering midlife, she wondered if she would ever meet a suitable partner and, frankly, she was getting lonely. But although Morrison longed to be married, she had no acceptable way of meeting men socially. Respectable women did not frequent taverns, nor were desirable partners likely to be found loitering over pints at the nightly watering hole.
But Morrison found what would become a visionary solution to her quandary: She placed a personal ad in her local paper, the Manchester Weekly Journal. Her “Lonely Hearts” ad was the first of its kind, but the results turned out to be less than optimal. The year was 1727 and the ad prompted such indignation that she was brought before the mayor for a dose of curative discipline. He judged her ad to be proof of lunacy and had her whisked off to an asylum for a month-long rehab. If Morrison was looking for a wild and crazy guy, she might have ended up in the right place, but history is not clear on that point.
Had she been born 300 years later, Morrison would be scrolling through online profiles with more potential dating choices than recent lottery winners have friends. Internet dating is just the latest answer to a familiar predicament: how best to meet people. Then, as now, optimal partners probably won’t be found clinging to bar stools. And beyond a certain age, meeting people outside the workplace is problematic.
In a time when every problem spawns a purchasable solution, catering to humanity’s need for connection has become a billion dollar industry with hundreds of specialized Internet sites, each promising the perfect match. Whether it’s casual relationship seekers (think sex), people looking for committed unions (think occasional sex), people over 50 who want to date mature people who don’t look like they’re over 50, or single parents hoping to find other single parents who can tolerate their children, all the lonely people can join sites catering to their unique needs and preferences. Turns out the Beatles were wrong. You Can Buy Me Love.
But specialization is creating an unintended bloom of digital tribalism. Wanting to find somebody “just like yourself” is either a sign of excessive self regard or blinding denial. But discomfort with the unknown drives like people together, bound by the implicit desire to forestall change.
For the tribal-minded, online dating provides a welcome respite from the creeping threat of pluralism. Every group boasts its own site. Single Democrats can practice inclusion by avoiding dating conservatives. Republicans can safely huddle with each other, safe from the influx of non-English speakers who wish only to date the same people they recently left behind. Whether it’s emigrants from India looking for people who can tolerate spicy food; Christians who really only want to date Jesus; or Jews who just want company at the next Woody Allen film festival, everyone can find like-minded companions on the Internet.
On the bright side, if you’re gay, lesbian, transgender, or just don’t feel as if you belong anywhere, there’s a place for you.
On the dark side, if you really don’t belong among civilized people, there are sites for you as well, where all existing prejudices promise to be reinforced. There are even neo-Nazi dating sites for those who like to spice up their love life with a generous dose of hate. In Russia, gay boys are lured by neo-Nazis with phony ads and then openly tortured. One of the drawbacks of Internet dating, not unknown to face-to-face enthusiasts, is that people don’t always tell the truth. But on the Internet they can do so with little consequence.
All of this online tribalism presumes that like attracts like. But that’s not always the case. Had computer dating been around 20 years ago, I would never have met the woman who later became my wife, much less married her. If the inaugural date was dependent on something akin to compatibility, any self-respecting match-making system would have immediately disqualified us as potential partners, perhaps even as prospective friends. Opposites, while not always easy to live with, as my wife will attest, create balance and expand the realm of possible experience. Software can’t yet predict which set of differences will turn out to be the most compatible.
Regardless, looking for a partner online has its advantages. Compared to the hunt and peck method, it’s like fishing in a well-stocked pond. And people who are normally shy can avoid a great deal of social awkwardness by weeding out unsuitable profiles. They may also find some measure of comfort in the fact that everyone advertising online is there for the same reason. There is no digital stigma attached to seeking connection. But the sheer numbers of participants creates a greater likelihood of rejection. Like Nordstrom’s bargain rack–everybody is pawing through the merchandise, tossing aside anyone with visible imperfections.
Still, the mere process of developing a profile provides an opportunity to move beyond the vagaries of need and clarify one’s criteria for a prospective partner. The clearer the criteria, the better the chance of finding the right person. Research suggests that the most important factor for a successful partnership is mutually-held values. If one partner values Home, Family, and Community, and the other craves Independence, Adventure, and Travel, the likelihood of finding common ground is slim.
But beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. The online matchmaking model suffers from several inherent limitations. For one thing, the process favors people with writing skills. And since words only comprise 7 percent of a communication, good writers can make the best of a limited opportunity. Meaning is mostly discerned through tone, body language, micro-expressions, and a hundred subtle clues best gleamed in person. (Video can be helpful, but it can also be rehearsed.)
But maybe the greatest limitation of online partner selection is the Internet’s inability to transmit the magic of pheromones. Biology can trump the most carefully constructed profiles. And, tribalists take note, beyond attracting mates, pheromones are also designed to prevent inbreeding.
It would be terribly ironic if our overuse of soaps, deodorants, perfumes, and our general obsession with cleanliness prevented us from sensing the presence of a biologically compatible partner. If, as Carolyn Myss claims, your biography becomes your biology, when it comes to finding a partner, your biology can also become your biography.
When it comes to dating, the Internet solves a set of problems and creates new ones. And that’s the good news. There is a clumsy, stuttering element to meeting new people and getting to know them. A time when your guts liquefy, your palms sweat, and your heart races. It’s called discovery. And if technology could guarantee the perfect match or ever fully replicate the timeless mysteries of our biology, what then would be the function of falling in love?