Online dating, marriage study raises eyebrows

eHarmony commissioned research that shows relationships happier that start on Internet

More than a third of recent marriages in the United States started online, according to a study that presents more evidence of just how much technology has taken hold of our lives.“Societally, we are going to increasingly meet more of our romantic partners online as we establish more of an online presence in terms of social media,” says Caitlin Moldvay, a dating industry senior analyst for market research firm IBISWorld in Santa Monica, Calif. “I do think mobile dating is going to be the main driver of this growth.”The research, based on a survey of more than 19,000 people who married from 2005 to 2012, also found relationships that began online are slightly happier and less likely to split than those that started offline.Findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, put the percentage of married couples that now meet online at almost 35 percent – which gives what may be the first broad look at the overall percentage of new marriages that result from meeting online. About 45 percent of couples met on dating sites; the rest met on online social networks, chat rooms, instant messaging or other online forums.Lead author John Cacioppo, a psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, says dating sites may “attract people who are serious about getting married.”While Cacioppo is a noted researcher and the study is in a prestigious scientific journal, it is not without controversy. It was commissioned by the dating website eHarmony, according to the study’s conflict of interest statement. Company officials say eHarmony paid Harris Interactive $130,000 to field the research. Cacioppo has been a member of eHarmony’s Scientific Advisory Board since it was created in 2007. In addition, former eHarmony researcher Gian Gonzaga is one of the five co-authors.“It’s a very impressive study,” says social psychologist Eli Finkel of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “But it was paid for by somebody with a horse in the race and conducted by an organization that might have an incentive to tell this story.

“Does this study suggest that meeting online is a compelling way to meet a partner who is a good marriage prospect for you? The answer is ‘absolutely,’” he says. But it’s “premature to conclude that online dating is better than offline dating.”The findings about greater happiness in online couples “are tiny effects,” says Finkel,whose research published last year found “no compelling evidence” to support dating website claims that their algorithms work better than other ways of pairing romantic partners.

Cacioppo defends the results, and says that before he agreed to analyze the data, “I set stipulations that it would be about science and not about eHarmony.” He says that two independent statisticians were among co-authors.

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