Love in the time of dot-coms

The Interview: Anthropologist advises popular online dating site

February 11, 2011|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

Can the Internet be a tool for helping people find real love?

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and adviser to Chemistry.com, a sister website of Match.com, certainly thinks so. In less than two decades, online matchmaking has become a part of the relationship landscape.

A survey by Match.com last year found that one in six recently married couples had met through an online dating site, though finding mates through family or friends, or work or school, remained more common.

Fisher recently came out with her fifth book on the subject of human relationships, called "Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love." The book draws on her years of research on the biological underpinnings of why humans experience lust, romantic attraction and deep attachment.

As part of her research, Fisher put about 50 people through magnetic-resonance imaging scanners to study their brains. Some had just fallen in love; others had just been rejected. And still others had been in love for 21 years or more.

"I'm trying to map human personality and then watch who you're chemically drawn to," Fisher said. "What happens to the brain when you fall madly in love? What happens to the brain when you're rejected?"

The professor, who has 35 years of experience studying why and how humans are attracted to each other, has taken her wisdom to the world of online dating.

A few years ago, she developed a questionnaire for Chemistry.com. The personality test helps people learn about themselves and find compatible partners, which has been made increasingly efficient by the Internet. More than 8 million people have taken Fisher's test on the site.

In follow-up surveys of thousands of people who have used Chemistry.com, more than 80 percent have reported that they would go out on second dates with the people found for them, Fisher said.

Fisher gave a talk about the nature and science of love in a free presentation at the Maryland Science Center on Thursday. The Baltimore Sun had a conversation with her this past week.

Question: Internet dating sites used to be sources for jokes and even derision for people who used them, but it seems they've come a long way in the last decade. How have they evolved?

Answer: I am not at all surprised that Match and Chemistry have become so rapidly... mainstream in 15 years. I think they represent major trends in our modern world. Even 15 years ago, you tended to marry the girl you met in high school and the boy you met in college. These days we're marrying later, we're not marrying the girl we met in high school. A great many people are divorcing.

It's just a cheap, easy, safe way to meet people. They shouldn't call them dating sites. They should call them introducing sites. They provide the newest way to do the same old thing, which is places to meet people.

Q: Is online dating drawing on any evolutionary or biological instincts?

A: In many respects, we're going back to the way we used to be introduced. They're the kind of introductions we had millions of years ago. We traveled in small packs. You knew about people before you went out with them. The brain was not built to walk into a bar, where you know nobody, and start a conversation. That's not the way humanity has courted.

In many respects, with Internet dating, getting to know a little bit about somebody before you meet them is really compatible with how the brain is built.

Q: How effective is Chemistry.com and Match.com at helping people find happy partners?

A: When somebody leaves Match.com or Chemistry.com, they ask you why you left. One box you can check is, "I found somebody." Between 15 and 20 percent of people check that box.

Now, what I found on Chemistry.com is something different. I asked them after the first date to come back to me and tell us about how the date went. I ask four questions: Was the person on time? Was the person dressed appropriately? Did the person seem to express interest in you? And would you go out with this person again? And 81 percent of people checked they would go out with this person again.

Q: How do you feel about being an academic and a researcher who's gotten into this business of online matchmaking?

A: I never thought I'd be in this business. I'm just thrilled when I get a [thank-you] letter from somebody. I'm not selling soap. I'm selling life's most important prize, which is a mating partner and a companion.

Q: You've said that humans have evolved three core brain systems for mating and reproduction: lust, romantic attraction and attachment. Did these feelings or drives evolve for any evolutionary advantages?

A: Oh, absolutely. All mammals have this, but they express them in different ways. In one of my books, I write about attraction in other animals. ... We inherited this brain system that makes us attracted to one person or another, which we come to call romantic love.

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