Share via Print In this episode, Scientific American Mind contributing editor Robert Epstein talks about the pitfalls and potential of online dating. And Myelin Repair Foundation founder Scott Johnson talks about how the foundation is accelerating the search for multiple sclerosis therapies, as well as serving as a model for a new kind of biomedical research approach.
Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we will celebrate Valentine's Day by bringing you the bad and good news about the online dating scene with psychologist Robert Epstein and Scott Johnson will tell us about his Myelin Repair Foundation and how it's a model for a new kind of outcome-oriented biomedical research.
First up, Robert Epstein. He is a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. He is also a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind magazine and the host of his own show on Sirius satellite radio called Psyched!.
To find out more, I called him at his home in San Diego. Epstein, how are you today? So, tell me about online dating. How did you get so interested in this subject, first of all? Well, probably because I was doing some online dating. That made me very curious.
Then I learned that there were researchers—people like me—doing legitimate research on online dating. People at MIT and Boston University, and other good places, and they were trying to understand it scientifically, mainly using surveys, but using other techniques as well.
Let's talk about that a little bit. First of all, do we know how many people are engaged in online dating in this country? We don't know exactly. If you take the numbers that are released by the big online dating companies, of course, you are going to get a highly inflated figure that would suggest 50 or 60 million or more.
If you use some survey data done by some independent organizations, the number come down; but it's at least in the tens of millions for sure and the numbers are growing fast. So, let's talk about some of the things in the article. First of all, the lack of complete honesty on the part of people advertising themselves online. Well, some form of deception is probably part of courting, not just for humans, but for other mammalian species as well.
So, some point of deception or exaggeration might just be what you need to do in courting. But online, you see, it takes it to a whole new level, because the online world is of course virtual, meaning you can do or say anything—you can be anyone, and people quickly discover that when they are trying to do some online courting and unfortunately it gets way out of hand and people have investigated this a number of different ways so far; and I did my own bit of research, collected some new data for this article, and it is pretty frightening actually because the deception can get crazy.
Talk about the age discrepancies that you found. I collected some information from match. All I did is so simple. I just took down ages of a 1, men, the ages of a 1, women, and plotted them on a histogram to see what I got and in fact, if the people were being honest, , [what] you would get is pretty much a s smooth line for both males and females.
That's not what I found. For males, I found a couple of spikes at certain ages, like age If you get a spike and then a dip, that suggests that more men are calling themselves 36, [but] they are not really For women, I got three huge spikes. One was at age 29—which makes sense because, you see, that in our society, is a socially acceptable age—and then a big dip after that. Another at age 35, which again, I guess ed for women as [is a] socially acceptable age. If you are older than 35, you call yourself 35—well that's not so bad.
And then there was a third one and a smaller one at age These dips, some of them were—I should say these spikes followed by the dips—those were about nine times as large as you would expect by chance. So, there's no question that there is lot of deception going on the age issue and many other issues as well.
Some of the other studies have looked at the height and weight. You want to talk about that a little bit? In fact men lie about certain things that women don't care much about for themselves; i.
Men lie about—for example—educational level and income; because again, in our society, it's important that you be educated and have [high] incomes to attract a female. Women tend to lie a little bit about weight, where men a little less so. So, pretty much everything you can think of—in fact one study suggests that about 90 percent of the people online lie about something—that's a big number.
In the real world, you can lie about whether—for example—about whether you are in a marriage and some people do that. Men do that certainly online—possibly 10 percent, maybe even 20 percent of men who say they are single online or [are] actually married. In person I can't lie about my height. There are certain things you cannot lie about. You can't lie about your race, your height, your weight. But, you know, online you can—it's more than lying. You know, it's exciting in a way, because you can become a different person—and one thing I didn't mention in the article is that right now online there are a lot of women who are not real at all.
They are not real at all in the sense that there are companies in Nigeria—and this has been well documented—there are companies in Nigeria that employ people that fill up small office buildings there that simply create virtual women and they then prey upon men, mainly in America—to some extent in Europe as well—and they over time build up an email relationship and then try to get these men to send them money.
You talk in the article about scientific testing realities and how important they are in trying to figure out what online dating really is and whether or not it works. So, you have to have reliable testing and you have to actually be sure that you are measuring what you think you are measuring; [those] are the two points that you raise. So, how does online dating stack up on those fronts? Well, this is an area which unfortunately is very disturbing right now because some of the big companies out there are making money by saying hey, we have a test—we have a test that will allow us to find not just someone you have found, but that will allow us to find your soul mate.
One of the biggest companies out there—actually that's what they thrive on. That's how they make their money: We have all seen the thousands of commercials for what you're talking about. Because that company got an infusion of about a million dollars in new investment money not long ago and that's why you see so many ads. Well, the reality is—and this has been confirmed by some of the top people in the field of psychology—the reality is no one knows how to do that with a test.
No one knows how to give you a test and then use that test to find someone who you will get along with; and certainly no one knows how to find your soul mate with sort of a psychological test. All they are doing probably, as far as we can tell, is trying to set you up with people who have similar scores on the test; but you know that doesn't really work in the real world.
First of all, you don't know if when you meet them you're going to have any kind of attraction or chemistry, [if] you're going to feel safe or comfortable. The test tells you nothing about that—and that's absolutely critical. Also, you know, in the real world we often are attracted to people who are not like us. You know, you hear that all the time—opposites attract.
Well that's an oversimplification, but the fact is, a test in which you match people up according to similar scores is bound to fail. And this brings—lead[s] to—what is called the false negative problem. That's a false negative; and you're never even going to show the person that possible mate because of, you know, a score that person got on the test.
You met, probably, a false negative. There is a section in the article where you talk about this kind of new world of virtual dating that the MIT Media Lab is at the forefront of. What's that all about, and why do you think it might be superior to just the questionnaire-type online dating? Well, to me, the bottom line in my research I did on this topic is that what we have now in online dating is fairly primitive, but that there's some cool things happening. One is—as I mentioned—this virtual dating possibility.
In this kind of scenario, you can actually go online with your potential mate and go somewhere together if you are on a date. Now, they did [it] in such an incredibly primitive way that it's hardly even worth mentioning. And the other thing that is kind of exciting now is—and it's beginning to happen—is using a community approach for online dating. Right now, if you sign up with the eHarmony or match. It's like being at a huge bar, but going without your guy friends or your girl friends—you're really alone.
But in the real world, the community is very helpful in trying to determine whether someone is right for you, and some of the new services allow you to go online with friends and family and have, you know, your best friend with you searching for potential partners, checking people out. So, that's the new community approach to online dating.
So, if you take the possibility of virtual online dating and community online dating and you start to make these things add up online, it does start to get exciting. And these things are happening—they are happening now, they are being developed. So, you have the online equivalent of when Michael Corleone takes that women in Italy out for a walk followed by the entire family stretching out for a quarter of a mile behind them.
Laughs Well, that would be an extreme case, but for sure, it does help to have the community with you; and in the real world you see—even when we start dating someone—there are people checking that person out or sometimes, you know, we get fixed up.
The community is important. It gives you a big reality check. Being completely alone—especially in the world of online dating where there is so much deception—not a good way to proceed. And let's tell everybody you actually have a relationship with one of these community dating sites, right?
I did a little consulting for one of these companies—called engage. There are other companies as well that are doing this and I am pretty sure it's going to be one of the important areas in which this online dating moves in the future.
Robert Epstein, very interesting stuff. Robert Epstein's article on online dating is available free at the Scientific American Mind Web site—that's www.
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