Algorithmic Online Dating and the Paradox of Choice
“Computer dating is fine, if you’re a computer.” — Rita Mae Brown
Dan Areily is a brilliant new professor at Duke. He has thought deeply about classical questions in psychology  and formulated his own solutions and tools . He gets invitations to deliver keynote speeches in front of VPs of marketing of major retailers like Target and he presents his ideas at TED .
I really like professor Ariely’s method of thinking. He has a profound understanding of statistical analysis and statistical significance. For example he points out that focus groups are not as useful as companies think , simply because the data you collect from your observation do not translate to valuable information. He is absolutely correct, with focus groups you cannot make a claim unless you have shown (from your data) that your claim is statistically significant.
A friend of mine forwarded Dan Ariely’s recent interview, in which he explains why online dating is so unsatisfying. It is a very thought provoking interview and I suggest you watch the video before continuing.
“There’s very little advice in men’s magazines, because men think, I know what I’m doing. Just show me somebody naked.”
— Jerry Seinfeld
The online dating industry is even bigger than the porn industry , and more than 30 percent of first dates end up in coitus  yet its customers are much less satisfied than the customers of the porn industry. Let me break it down for you, those who go out, partake in a social activity and perhaps later on, sleep with a living human being feel more miserable than those who look at naked women, with fake breasts, online, all day, and alone…. But why?
I am sure everybody in the field of computer science has also thought about making better dating websites. After all we all have friends who are single, good looking and perfectly qualified why can’t they just start seeing each other?
I, as well, have been thinking about this problem in the context of recommendation systems. Once you start reading the literature you soon realize that nobody has really figured out a solution for online dating yet.Allow me to provide you with an example: Randy Farmer and Bryce Glass have a fine book entitled “Online Reputation Systems” in which they talk about two reputations systems that they designed for Yahoo. they use similar methodologies for designing reputation systems for both websites (Flickr and Yahoo personals, which was Yahoo’s dating website but I guess they now use the engine of match.com). The Flickr system works great but the yahoo personal system, was not that successful! A solution that works for photos fails for humans.
So how can we write a code that finds people’s “the one” automatically and algorithmically.
What is wrong with current dating websites?
Here is my $0.02 on this issue. I beilieve the problem is not really our algorithms, it is not our number crunching computers. The problem is how we present our recommendations. I’d like to argue that the problem is the paradox of choice.
The paradox of choice is professor Barry Schwartz’s thesis [see this video]. It basically says if you need a jar of jam and you go to a supermarket that has 3 types of jams you’ll leave much happier than when you go to a supermarket that has 30 different types of jams on the shelf. This is a beautiful dilemma, in the first case your chance of buying the best jam available is 33 percent and even if you fail to chose the best jam there is 66 percent chance that you will get at least the second best jam or better. In the second case the likelihood of buying the best available jam is only 3 percent. So you’ll be less happier knowing that you have probably selected the jam that is not the best.
Now back to online dating. Most online dating websites show you a lot of different options, they say “look we got 100 gorgeous ladies for you”. And perhaps you think “wow they really have a good collection that satisfies my taste” one of the ladies has a PhD, the other is wealthy, the otherone is athletic and pretty. you search for a couple of hours, message a bunch of them, perhaps stalk the top 50 and at the end of the day you end up having a date with another random woman who was not even in the list of top 100 gorgeouse ladies that the website recommended to you. Who can be satisfied with this date now?
Similarly, in TV shows such as “The bachelor “, we have never seen a successful marriage even though the bachelor selects from a large pool of qualified bachelorettes [see this news article for example].
So what’s the solution?
“My philosophy of dating is to just fart right away.”
— Jenny McCarthy
[I am still thinking about a solution but in case you want to see a half-done solution please keep on reading]
The problem is that assortative mating is a very complex game theoretical problem. If you have watched the movie, beautiful mind, you probably remember that John Nash (Russell Crowe) talks about the best strategy to get the blond lady! Now add 5 million more online single guys to the pool of competitors and you got yourself an unsolvable game theoretical problem. (and let me remind you that you’ll never get that blond girl, and you’ll always remember that your current wife or girlfriend is not the hottest one)
For a long time online dating websites have been highlighting the good features of candidates, but I think the best solution is for the algorithm to point out the flaws of hottest girls/guys directly to the customer (but just if the customer is not among the top attractive people himself). Perheps to a lady customer that is ranked 5 out of 10 on the social scale (not attractive) it can suggest:
- This guy is handsome but he pees all over the toilet seat
- This gentleman makes six figure salary but he is rude to his girlfriend, farts at home and snores in bed
- This guy has a PhD in computer science, works in silicon valley but is socially retarded and wears striped shirts in parties
- and as we go down the list
- This guy looks relatively ok, makes good amount of money and has a college degree, want to meet him?
The algorithm is not changed but I believe people will be happier if they understand that the grass on the otherside is greener simply because of the smelly fertilizers!