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Disappointment most likely catch for online daters

Date: 2007-01-16

If you've been trawling the online dating pool and think you've spotted a fish worth reeling in, a new report suggests you might want to quit while you're ahead.

Contrary to people's belief that they will grow to like others more as they get to know them, the study reveals that the opposite is actually true. In most cases, familiarity does indeed breed contempt.

In the paper, published in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked online daters to rate how much they liked their prospective partners and how much they knew about them before and after a first date. Although they admitted to knowing very little about them, people were distinctly more impressed with their dates before that first cup of coffee ruined everything.

Participants said they knew 15 per cent more about their dates after meeting, but their liking of those same people plummeted by almost twice that amount, or nearly 30 per cent. Interestingly, men's attraction to their dates dropped just 13 per cent, while women were 36 per cent less impressed once they were able to put a face to the online profile.

"There are lots of reasons why," says Michael Norton, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School who co-authored the study with Jeana Frost of Boston University and Dan Ariely at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "One of them is that people lie and say they're six feet tall when they're not, but another reason seemed to be that people were reading into ambiguous profiles things that they wanted to believe about the person."

He stresses that while this is true in most cases, it obviously does not apply to the "true love aspect" in which someone gets past our initial screening mechanisms and continues to pleasantly surprise us over time.

Humans are a socially optimistic bunch, Norton says, and when we meet someone new whether in a work, social or dating context we generally assume we will like them and they will be similar to us.

When they inevitably disappoint us by revealing a penchant for soap operas or professional wrestling, that first dissimilarity causes a "cascade effect" in which we interpret every new piece of information as more evidence of how unlike us they are, he says, so the more we find out the less we like them.

Online dating inspires particularly unrealistic expectations, says Lori Miller, singles and dating expert at Toronto-based Lavalife, because there are so many options available in one place that daters believe "the one" is sure to drop into their lap and inbox before long.

She likens the experience to landing a new job, when people start out giddy and optimistic but after the "honeymoon period" is over, they realize it has ups and downs like everything else in life.

To keep themselves grounded, Miller advises daters not to flirt too long in the virtual world before meeting in the flesh.

"We find when people spend a long time getting to know someone online, you do build up these expectations," she says. "You interpret certain things what they're writing and saying over the phone, you make interpretations based on their photos when a lot of that information is fairly one-dimensional."

Norton's dating advice is even simpler than that:

"I think arranged marriage is the way to go," he laughs.

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