Seventy-one percent of users on online dating sites believe in love at first sight and forty-nine percent rate physical characteristics as the most important factor in finding a suitable match. The significance of appearances in relationships is widely understood and has always been so. Learning, from our cavemen days, that a good-looking mate usually resulted in healthier and fitter progeny, we hold this tendency to judge in our subconscious. It is the person that accurately judges the enemy, companion, and mate that survives and passes down their genes. But the question is: has the Internet exacerbated this superficiality?
This superficial quality of human nature was recently exposed through three different experiments by OkCupid, an online dating website. The first experiment was, in fact, not an experiment at all, but, like most discoveries, a happy accident. On Tuesday January 15, 2013, OkCupid decided to celebrate their new app’s release with Love Is Blind Day, when, for a period of 7 hours, no photos existed on the site. Without pictures of other users to form judgments and easily dismiss potential soul mates, those on the site were forced to actually send messages to their matches and seek this information out for themselves. By analyzing the data OkCupid found that on this day, users responded to first messages 44% more often than on a typical Tuesday. They also, whether out of romantic interest or curiosity about their matches’ appearances, exchanged contact information more rapidly than before. However, once the pictures came back online, it was as if “[they’d] turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight,” as Christian Rudder, the founder of OkCupid, stated. Those on virtual blind dates in chat rooms began to screen their matches and stopped responding to users that they had been talking to for hours based on an unappealing picture. The judgmental tendency of those using the online dating site fascinated OkCupid developers. And, of course, there was profit to be made by using information about human nature to improve the website.
So, in order to obtain this knowledge, OkCupid began to intentionally experiment on their users, blatantly hiding information and lying to them to sway their emotions. The site obscured the biographical information accompanying the pictures of potential matches and asked users to rate their matches in terms of looks and personality. They found that as a person’s appearance rating increased, their personality rating increased linearly. In other words, we lust after hot people due not only to our innate sexual desire, but also our subconscious assumption that they are a good person. The researchers at OkCupid then took this theory a step further. If users could be fooled into thinking that good-looking matches were more compatible than uglier matches, how much would it take to convince users that their soul mate was actually a bad match, or vice versa? Surprisingly little, as OkCupid discovered. They simply changed the compatibility scores to suggest an increased or decreased chance of the match coming to fruition. Simply by changing this number, those that were 30% compatible, but led to believe that they were 90%, had higher odds of having a conversation. Even those that were 90%, who were told that they were 30%, had less chance for communication. Although OkCupid originally tested for the power of suggestion in romantic relationships using this third test, it is also extremely indicative of Internet users’ willingness to believe anything read on a website and to pass judgment more easily.
Ironically, this experimental conclusion strikes a similar tone as the controversy over this type of experimentation. OkCupid’s method allowed for neither the consent nor the knowledge of the participant. And this is not the first time social experimentation through popular websites has occurred. It has recently come to light that Facebook has also been conducting social experiments on their users by altering the content of their newsfeeds to evoke certain emotions from them. OkCupid’s Rudder, despite the outrage that erupted when Facebook’s experiments were exposed, unapologetically asserted, “If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on any site.” Of course, it is, statistically speaking, an extremely effective method to use a random sample of Internet users in an experiment due to its wide representation of all races, nationalities, social statuses, religions, etc. In addition, there are many gains from these types of experiments that are not limited to improving any specific website. Instead, social experimentation is, as many claim, the new platform for testing and learning about our psychological tendencies. But, does any website truly have the authority to sacrifice the emotional stability of its users in order to improve its own functioning?
These social experiments have instilled a sense of fear because for the first time, those that claim eggs must be broken in order to make an omelette, that the ends justify the means, are not immune from becoming test subjects themselves. Because we all use the Internet. And the Internet knows far too much about us. Google knows the areas we frequent by our searches and location services. Facebook knows our likes and dislikes, promoting certain pages based on this information. Internet advertisers know which target group we belong in for different products, catering advertisements and commercials to us.
However, despite the complete surrender of security and control, even after realizing the scope of social experiments and the pervasiveness of private information, people are still reluctant to doubt the Internet. OkCupid users believed a supposedly computer-generated compatibility rating over their own logic and intuition. And it is these users’ faith in the Internet that increases their ability and desire to quickly form opinions about other users. Although in the modern world it is much easier to judge a person after glancing at their picture for 3.4 seconds, we lose something in this speed search. As we guard our sacred time, much too precious to waste building friendships and relationships with the “wrong” people, we quickly pass oversimplified judgments based on an online profile. Wrestling? Jock. Holding an award dressed in a suit? Nerd. Wearing far too much make-up and scanty clothing? Slut. Holding a 19th century camera? Hipster. We give out labels like pens at a college fair. And these labels not only stick, but are also largely misplaced. Thus, we must learn to broaden our perception from the computer screen to experience people as they truly are.
“Online Dating Statistics.” Statistic Brain RSS. N.p., 7 July 2014. Web. 30 July 2014.
Rudder, Christian. “We Experiment On Human Beings!” OkTrends. Humor Rainbow Inc, 28 July 2014. Web. 31 July 2014.
Wood, Molly. “OKCupid Plays With Love in User Experiments.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 July 2014. Web. 31 July 2014.