The Internet has made it remarkably cheap and easy to search for anything your heart may desire. Mostly this has made the world a better, more efficient place: Sellers looking to unload the junk in their grandmother’s attic can easily locate those buyers who value that junk as treasure. But access to everything you might want isn’t always a good thing; too much choice can have a negative effect. When it comes to romance, for instance. Internet dating has made it a bit too easy to keep playing the field, always looking for better options. How can Internet daters in search of true love separate the players from the potential soul mates? And how can the romantics among us signal that we’re in it for a mate, not just mating?
For some years, designers of dating sites have been experimenting with ways of allowing daters to signal their earnest intentions. Plentyoffish.com, for example, sells Serious Member badges, and Cupid.com allows members to attach a rose icon to a limited number of messages to potential dates. Now, an Asian dating company has teamed up with some market design specialists to analyze whether these “virtual roses” are an effective way of indicating genuine interest. In a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Propose With a Rose? Signaling in Internet Dating Markets,” economists Soohyung Lee and Muriel Niederle ran an online event through a Korean dating site in which participants were given a couple of “virtual roses” to signal their interest in someone special. It turns out nothing says I’m interested like a rose: A digital flower increased the chances that an offer of a date was accepted by about 20 percent. The roses were even more effective when delivered by the most desirable suitors, whose entreaties to less attractive dating prospects weren’t taken seriously without them.
Why would virtual roses—which the participants all received for free—serve as an effective signal of interest? If the problem of Internet dating is an infinity of options and cost-free ways of leading potential partners on (in the old days you needed to call someone to keep them interested; now a text or a quick IM may suffice), the solution may lie in imposing a cost on initiating an interaction with a prospective date. A site could charge a fee for each contact initiated, though it’s unlikely that a few dollars here or there would dissuade too many would-be Casanovas, and higher prices might drive customers to competing sites. Alternatively, if daters were limited to contacting just a few potential matches each month, they’d think a lot harder about whom to write to, and probably take much more seriously the advances of those expressing an interest. Or, if participants get just a couple of roses each month, and everyone knows that roses are a scarce commodity, then each offer of a rose becomes costly, since it represents the lost opportunity to contact another love interest—what economists call “opportunity cost.”
If it seems obvious that a scarce and costly rose would be more likely to elicit a positive response, dating strategy chat rooms often beg to differ: The consensus seems to be that the roses are “dorky”; “so high school”; and “can backfire in so many ways.”
The Korean company and their economist collaborators set out to test whether the chat room chatter was right. In the summer of 2008, the company advertised two special dating sessions for about 600 of their members, recruiting a fairly even split of men and women in their 20s and 30s. Each event lasted a little more than a week; in the first half, participants could browse profiles of participants of the opposite sex, and could send date requests to up to 10 partners, and bundle up to two of these with a rose. Only after this initial stage ended could participants see the virtual offers they’d received themselves, so no one found out who was interested in them before making their own offers. Then, with offers in hand—some with roses attached, some without—daters could view suitors’ profiles and choose which ones to accept, up to a total of 10. A yes resulted in the company sending a text message to each partner in the match with the other’s phone number.
The patterns in proposals brought various familiar stereotypes out of the woodwork—men made nearly 50 percent more date offers than women, and despite receiving many more offers, women accepted fewer overall than did the men. And of course participants that scored highly on the company’s desirability index (based on physical attractiveness, income, and other verifiable attributes) got a lot more dates than the homely and destitute.
But all else being equal, attaching a rose had a big effect on the chances of getting a date accepted. Your chances of having your date request accepted increased by about 20 percent over rose-less proposals, which was the equivalent of moving from the lowest of three desirability categories to the middle one. Sadly, the roses also seemed to hand yet more power to the most desirable participants in the dating market. The earliest economic theories of dating predicted that like would match with like, with the most desirable men and women pairing off, and so on down the line to matches between the least sought-after potential partners. Yet love works in mysterious ways—sometimes the nerd does in fact get to dance with the prom queen. But how can she let him know she isn’t merely toying with his emotions? Possibly by giving him a rose: When the most desirable participants accompanied their proposals to less desirable partners with a digital flower, the chances of success increased by about 50 percent. On the other hand, a rose didn’t do much to help the prospects of less desirable proposers, whose advances were rejected at the same high rate, with or without a rose attached. (Click here for more on the experiment’s parameters.)
Will virtual roses change the landscape of Internet dating? Sam Yagan, dating guru and CEO of OKcupid.com doesn’t expect so. Outside of events like the one studied by Lee and Niederle—which involved a relatively small pool of 600 daters, and lasted just over a week—it's simply too easy to game the rose quota through multiple accounts and site registrations. He suggests that a better way of ensuring a partner isn’t playing the field is to make the relationship as similar as possible to the ones in the old, offline world. That is, actually spend time talking with a suitor in person. (OKCupid doesn’t offer any specific “proposal enhancers.” However, the site does post when a member last logged in, and Mr. Yagan reports that users have been known to monitor the login activity of love interests-in-progress to see if they’re spending a bit too much time on the site. He’s also heard about members creating false profiles to use to test how people they’ve recently dated respond to come-ons from others.)
On the eve of another Valentine’s Day, does the rose study hold any general lessons for those looking for love in the Internet era? I asked my friend Sheena Iyengar if she had any advice for the online dater overwhelmed by options. Sheena made her name running a study at a Palo Alto supermarket, where she set up a sampling table for shoppers to try different kinds of jam. Shoppers that were offered half a dozen flavors were more likely to make a jam purchase than those presented with a dizzying array of 24 options. She’s spent a good part of her life since then studying the problem of too much choice. Sheena contrasted the curse of dating choice in America today with the curse of not enough choice that characterized love and dating in her home country of India, where arranged marriages remain the norm. If, when you meet your life partner on your wedding day, you’re bound by fate and familial obligation to stay together, then you’re really committed to making things work. Few of us would hand over control of our love lives to others, least of all our parents. The key may instead lie in recognizing the eternal compulsion to always look for something better, closing your eyes to the Hollywood narrative of finding your one and only soul mate, and focus on nurturing happiness in the relationship you have now. And don’t forget to buy flowers now and again.