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TERRY GROSS, host:

Lots of people have given up trying to find a partner through parties, bars, dates, work, neighbors, friends, laundromats, bus stops, coffee shops and they've turned to online dating sites where there's lots of choices and where they'll maybe, maybe not, find a good match.

Online dating sites and how they make their matches is the subject of the article "Looking for Someone" in the current edition of The New Yorker by my guest Nick Paumgarten. If you're wondering if he looked for his match online, the answer is no. He's only been on two dates in his life and on the second, he met the woman who became his wife. They've been together 23 years.

Nick Paumgarten, welcome to FRESH AIR.

So you have an image I really like. You basically say that online dating is serving the function for middle-class adults that college serves for younger people, because when you're in college you have a really large pool of single people...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NICK PAUMGARTEN (Journalist, New Yorker): Right. Right.

GROSS: ...that you can meet. And then after college, that pool keeps getting smaller and smaller as your circle of friends shrinks and as many of them get coupled off.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Yeah, you run out of friends of friends, and then you run out of friends of friends of friends. And, you know, what Internet dating provides is a much bigger pool, and with that pool, you know, theoretically, you have a better chance of meeting someone better. It also means that it takes a lot of work, you know, to sort through all the possible mates that are there for you.

GROSS: And it means you're making choices based on information as opposed to making choices meeting somebody and having a feeling about them.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right. It's not just the look or even that one thing that someone says or a feeling that you have in that moment. It's, you know, a written and curated presentation, you know, the dating profile, you know, that tends to favor someone who might write well or be clever. But I guess the idea is that you are reverting in a way back to an older way of dating or of getting to know people, which is you get to know a little bit about them before you meet them, which has an almost kind of, you know, 19th century feel to it.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how the online dating services work. They all have slightly different theories of compatibility. So why don't you choose one and tell us their theory of compatibility?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: I spent time sort of with three or four sites. One of them is eHarmony, which is probably the squarest of the bunch. It's the one that is most overtly committed to finding you a spouse or a partner for life. And their approach is based some clinical psychological findings that say that, you know, compatibility is important, that the idea that opposites attract is a bit of a canard. That opposites attract, well, they also attack. That's the term they use. So they, what they try to do is they try to identify, you know, personality features that make people compatible.

GROSS: Now they actually have a relationship lab that you visited.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Yeah.

GROSS: What happens in the relationship lab?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Well, the cool thing about the relationship lab is that it's run by a husband and wife team, sort of a Nick and Nora of relationship research. What they do is they have married couples come in periodically and go through a bunch of tests, you know, little exercises and they observe those exercises and look for clues to the kinds of things that would indicate that these are happy marriages or less than happy marriages.

I mean they don't do a lot of judging on scene but they do pick up on little cues. You know, for example, if a spouse, if a husband rolls his eyes when his wife says something, that's a sign of contempt and apparently contempt is not a good emotion to have in a marriage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So in the eHarmony relationship lab they're trying to find successful couples and figure out what it is about them that makes them a good match?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right. Right.

GROSS: So that they could duplicate that in people who are looking for a match?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: That's the idea. I mean to a certain extent I sometimes wonder if there's a little bit of Potemkin in the enterprise, that they want to be showing you that they're doing this as much as the fact that they are just doing it. But the idea is that...

GROSS: You need to make it seem more scientific?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right. I mean, you know, all these sites they all have an approach that they abide by. Yes. But the approach is also their - sort of their selling point. But they are trying to figure out, you know, they're trying to find a secret sauce.

Another site is Chemistry.com and that's owned by Match. And Match started actually in response to eHarmony. And, you know, they've identified personality types. They have, you know, four personality types: an explorer, a negotiator, a builder, director. And these are, you know, these correlate to brain chemicals, neurochemicals, dopamine, estrogen, serotonin, testosterone. And, you know, they feel that there are certain compatibilities and there are matrixes of compatibilities that better indicate which two people might get along better and have a long and happier life.

GROSS: Did you take the test to find out which type you were?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: I did. I mean it's hard to resist a test. And I found out I was an explorer-negotiator.

GROSS: And what does that mean? What does that mean?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: I think it means that, you know, I'm daring but I am, you know, I'm willing to take on all kinds of crazy ventures. But at the same time I'm very respectful of others. I think these are all flattering categories, by the way. It's sort of like your horoscope. It's always telling you things that you want to hear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: But the funny thing is that I took the test and then I had my wife take the test just for fun. And it turned out that I was one of the, you know, the 10 people that was recommended for her, so I'm one of her matches on Chemistry.com.

GROSS: You mean of all the people...

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: She didn't come up...

GROSS: She didn't ask for you. She just put her personality in and you came up?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right. And it wasn't even my real name because, you know, I didn't feel comfortable going on with a real name.

GROSS: So there's hope for your marriage after more than 20 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Yeah. But she didn't come up as one of my 10, though. That's, you know.

GROSS: Oh, she didn't?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: No. I came up as one of her 10.

GROSS: Oh, you came back as one of hers but she didn't come up as one of yours.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I don't know how that - maybe that's because I'm an explorer, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. OK. So Chemistry.com is owned by Match.com, and Match.com is one of the big ones.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You said that Match.com takes stock of your stated and revealed preferences. What does that mean? What is the equation that they're doing?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Well, most sites begin with a questionnaire. Match is no different. You answer a bunch of questions describing who you are and describing what you think you're looking for. But what they found and what other people have found on these sites is that your behavior online, who you click on, who you receive messages from, says more about you often than your own answers.

And what they do is they figure out that there's sort of a disconnect, a dissonance between your stated preference and your revealed preference. And they sort of - they plug both of those into, you know, their computers and the algorithms figure out what it is that you really want and how the distance between those two things is indicative of a certain type of person who wants certain things and they go from there and figure out exactly who your perfect match is.

GROSS: Can you give us a sense of what the questions are?

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Well, the questions are all over the place. I mean some of them are pretty basic. You know, the questions about yourself, obviously you describe yourself, you describe what you do, what your values are, what your religious beliefs are, you know, all that kind of stuff. And then correspondingly what you're looking for.

This other site, OkCupid has - their questions are basically provided by the users. And what they have is they have questions that seem totally nuts, but they found that there are correlations between seemingly mundane questions and deeper, more important and revealing tendencies.

For example, they found that the question of whether you'll sleep with someone on the first date, right? That's not a question you're going to ask someone if you're about to go on a first date. But apparently, the question of whether you sleep with someone or not on the first date, the answers to that question correlate perfectly or nearly perfectly to the question: do you like the taste of beer? So apparently if you say you like the taste of beer, you are also the kind of person who says yes, I will sleep with someone on the first date.

Another question they found...

GROSS: That makes no sense to me.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Because most people like the taste of beer but a lot of people wouldn't sleep with somebody on the first date.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: I was surprised. I thought - yeah I didn't. I thought that maybe people are more honest about the taste of beer in the questionnaire. I mean I don't know. But another one, another good one is do you like horror movies? Apparently if a couple - if two people both feel the same way about that they have a better chance of getting along. It's a very revealing question about compatibility. And when you think about it, I don't know, I've sort of informally done a poll and it seems to bear out anecdotally.

Do you like horror movies?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I'd have to say which kind? Are you talking about horror movies from the '80s or classic horror films like "Frankenstein" and "Dracula?" Are you talking about, you know, Val Lewton movies or splatter films. You know, so I, if you...

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Oh, you're taking the fun out of it. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No. No. But that's the thing, I can't do questionnaires because I always...

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Oh I had the same problem. Yeah.

GROSS: I always do this whole, well, what do you mean by that? You know and I am paralyzed.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right. They're really binary.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: They're really binary. And, you know, the political questions seem sometimes simplistic. The religious questions seem simplistic. You know, I sometimes felt inspired to write little essays in the box they provide, which have no bearing.

GROSS: No, exactly. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: You know, but it's just, and then you come across like a pedant, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Oh, I'm agnostic but let me explain that, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: You're not going to get any dates that way.

GROSS: You know, I remember the first time I knew somebody who had looked for a partner or a date through a personal ad.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this was, God, really, this was in the '70s. And it was somebody who did it through the like The New York Review of Books and I thought...

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Right.

GROSS: ...wow, that is just so weird to do a personal ad. And he really I think loved the person who he met and they were together long-distance on and off for some time. And it's so common now to meet people that way. And just not necessarily through The New York Review of Books or through like an ad and hard copy, but through some kind of service like that. It's just is so interesting how the landscape has changed and how common it's become.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: If you were to do a, you know, a straight history of Internet dating, you know, you'd have to go back and look at the New York Review of Books and their personals as sort of, it's a watershed thing. Because they made, they took it out of the sort of the back alley and they made it into an art form: the profile or, you know, the classified ad. And, you know, that strain sort of continued on in Nerve.com later in the, you know, late '90s and still going.

You know, the idea of the clever well-curated personal profile, which is very much a part of it. I mean, you know, Facebook and that kind of thing also contributes to that. But, you know, those old ads in The New York Review of Books were important.

GROSS: Well, Nick Paumgarten, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PAUMGARTEN: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Nick Paumgarten's article about online dating sites is in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to his article on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a newly re-mastered and reissued release of Thelonious Monk's 1959 solo album "Thelonious Alone in San Francisco."

This is FRESH AIR.

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