Is There a Science to Finding Romantic Chemistry Online?

This newly single economist used herself as market research to calculate the risk of pursuing love via apps. And it's not as bleak as you think.

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After the end of a ten-year relationship that spanned my entire 20s, I’m on the dating market, feeling overwhelmed by how technology changes the level of information and expectations we have going into it. Like every other market, the internet has changed how we date.

I’ve been learning a bit since being single and applying my economics background to my dating strategy. Economists think their models can explain everything. While it might be a bit overstated, this might help reframe your outlook while venturing into the risky world of online dating.

The world of online dating changes how we gather information and make decisions about who we want to date. We have access to a lot more information than we’ve ever had before, and we tend to create expectations around that. But after my short experience as a single lady, I’m increasingly suspicious about how the façade of perfect information (an economist’s ideal situation) about a person actually affects the risk of a bad date.

This happens in the economy too. Basic economic models assume that we have perfect information and perfect competition, and they have a hard time incorporating the real systemic imperfection and unpredictability that actually exists in the world. Economists argue for more efforts to get more information and increase competition. But if things are inherently imperfect and there is no way to truly predict everything in a social world, then just saying to add more information and competition won’t necessarily help this.

Let’s formalized the economics of online dating. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Rothschild created an economic model of imperfect information and risk in insurance markets that can teach us some lessons to apply to our dating strategy. In their abstract model, they find that even adding the smallest amount of imperfection of information changes the structure of the model. In specific, they find that high-risk individuals (those who can tolerate a fair amount of risk) interacting with the market causes an externality for low-risk individuals, where low-risk individuals do worse when there are high-risk individuals in the same game but high-risk individuals are unaffected by the low-risk ones. So when we are in an online dating market characterized by inherent imperfection, the high-risk strategy I call “throw-caution-to-the-wind” will result in better outcomes, or at least not worse ones given how others are playing the game.

Anyone who has had a good internet date knows about that magical chemistry that happens the first time you lock eyes with the relative stranger as they walk into the bar you’ve agreed on. Maybe Tinder, with its purely superficial function of choosing people based on looks, or going on an OKCupid date with minimal electronic interaction before meeting in person, is a better dating investment strategy. It all seems to be random—maybe not trying hard is the way to go. The lower expectations, acknowledging the impossibility of having perfect information, mean there are also lower risks of a truly disappointing date.

I’m still an online dating novice, but I’ve had some success so far—which I define as not wanting to run away from the date afterward. Sometimes I think I have all the right information, and then, despite my hopes, there is just no interpersonal chemistry. Why spend the time gathering so much information about dating prospects by chatting electronically for weeks before meeting when all that information doesn’t predict that natural chemistry that you can pick up immediately when you meet someone? There are, of course, a few deal breakers that are worthwhile to identify that can be relayed by someone’s online profile (for me, they often concern attitudes about gender roles in relationships), but beyond the very few absolutely deal breakers, it all seems pretty random.

I’ve learned that it’s best to throw caution to the wind. There was one person—“the handsome British man”—who travels for work, so he is rarely in the same place as me, and works in a really, really different field than me. But when I first met him, I felt chemistry: I immediately I liked talking to him. He asked me more questions about my work than the guys who work in similar fields to me. (Note to male readers: If you don’t ask an ambitious woman about what they do and their motivations for it, consider it a deal-breaker.) My low expectations made the risks low. I was more open to unpredictable connections.

Another guy—“the tech exec”—who I would never have predicted I wanted to date. I’m a left-leaning economist who still holds onto the naïve notion that I can somehow contribute to making the world a better place for less privileged people. I have a healthy suspicion of MBAs and tech company culture. (Even some of the best MBA tech world types have a tendency to be insufferable brocialists.) But throwing caution to the wind, I went on a couple dates with this guy and it turns he was irresistibly charming to me. (Do they teach that in business school?) It didn’t last, but it was good while it did.

And similarly, another MBA—“the equity analyst”—that I had coffee with still managed to maintain his charm while we debated whether capitalism was a force for good and he didn’t get defensive when I told him to read Marx. He just didn’t ask me on a second date… I would never have predicted a year ago that I’d be going on dates with MBAs, for so many reasons.

So if you’ll take dating advice from a recently single economist, go out with that MBA; if you are an MBA, ask that leftist economist out for a drink. Don’t worry too much about the check boxes if a date doesn’t have the same interests or live in the same continent as you. Adjust your expectations to acknowledge that if we date in a world of imperfect information, a little risk-loving can lead to a better outcomes, or at least fewer disappointments.


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