Find a match: how much choice do you need?

One of the touted benefits of dating online is that it gives people a wider choice of potential partners. But just how much choice is needed to find the perfect relationship?

Research suggests that choosing between too many options may be problematic, with Barry Schwartz famously arguing that the more options you have, the worse you eventually feel about your choice.

Logic tells us that our decisions lead to better outcomes when presented with a bigger option-set. With a decision which could shape our entire lives, choosing between 100 partner suggestions seems preferable to choosing between 5. By considering more people, we feel more confident in finding someone closely matching what we are looking for. 

But psychological research challenges this intuition. Though people often expect more choice to enhance their decision making, we may in fact be overwhelmed by an extensive set of options, reducing both the motivation to decide and eventual choice satisfaction. 

Lacking motivation to decide?

In a study investigating this “tyranny of choice” Iyengar and Lepper found evidence of this contradiction. Using a tasting booth in an upmarket US deli, they offered shoppers either a limited or extensive selection of different jams. While the extensive selection attracted more people, they observed that ten times as many (!) participants bought something when given the limited set. This result was corroborated in another context too; offering college students an optional, extra-credit assignment, they found many more students took part when given a smaller selection of essay options.

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Researchers Shah and Wolford set-up a similar experiment in a US college library, offering students discounted pens in different selection sizes. The study’s results were similar to that of Iyengar and Lepper and gave a suggestion of an ‘optimum’ amount of choice. Using incrementally-increasing option sets, they saw that very limited and very extensive choice incentivised the lowest number of purchases. People were, however, twice as likely to buy a pen when presented with a moderate-sized selection. 

More choice, less satisfaction?

Wanting to test this choice effect on subsequent satisfaction, Iyengar and Lepper also asked participants about their happiness after choosing from either a limited or extensive number of chocolates. They found people were significantly more satisfied if they made their choice from the smaller selection of chocolates.

What are the implications for online dating?

These findings are interesting for the way online dating operates. According to Lenton, Fasolo and Todd, who considered this choice effect in the context of online dating, the “downsides of increased choice may be even greater in the modern mating game”.

The de-incentivising effect of choice overload may mean that people deciding between very large numbers of online options often lose their willingness to make a choice. This suggests that sites offering thousands of potential dates may hinder, rather than facilitate, finding the right partner.

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The likelihood of dissatisfaction or regret with a decision may also increase when people have too many partner options. Lenton et al. found that people tend to overestimate the amount of choice they want, anticipating more satisfaction from a larger choice. Despite this, as the option set-size increased in Lenton’s study, people were more likely to resort to simple photo browsing or viewing only the most recently added profiles, meaning more chance of suitable matches being missed.

Eventual satisfaction may be reduced by people being less certain about their decision from a larger set and suffering the regret brought on by decisions involving ‘trade-offs’ between options. 

That better choices often come from a smaller sample suggests that finding a match online is helped by using websites that help to filter users and introduce them to each other. The key question is by how much users’ option-set should be reduced. Introducing people based on their personality traits and search preferences, however, may well give people more satisfaction with their date than allowing limitless profile browsing. 

For those looking to find a match online, these studies offer a powerful reminder that less is often more.

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