The search engine for love

In the winter of 1959, two Stanford University students used the institution's room-size IBM 650 to build a computer program that paired 49 young men, mainly classmates, with 49 local women.

Prospective couples answered 30 questions including their age, religion, hobbies and number of children wished for in marriage.

The results were fed into the computer which, after nine hours of processing, selected pairs based on the similarity of the responses. The first attempt at computer dating was launched.

An end-of-term house party, replete with an adequate amount of home brew, functioned as a group first date.

The experiment resulted in one marriage and a top grade for its inventors.

The world wide web has since transformed online dating into a billion-dollar industry, and it is now the most common way love seekers meet prospective partners bar introductions by friends.

Gone are the days when parents picked suitors for their sons and daughters or couples met in the smoking room of a seedy nightclub. Cupid's bow now strikes via cyber space.

But have internet dating sites - which have grown from catalogues of singles to algorithm-based match sites - fundamentally changed the way Homo sapiens meets partners? And has this been for the better?

There is no denying that attitudes to internet dating have improved since inception.

People no longer view it as a last resort for the socially isolated and awkward and successful online couples no longer feel the need to concoct a more acceptable story to explain how they met.

A 2011 survey by the Australian online dating website RSVP, owned by Fairfax Media, publisher of the Herald, found 30 per cent of adult Australians had tried online dating, a technology that did not exist here 15 years earlier.

A satisfying relationship is one of the most significant predictors of a person's happiness and emotional health, so measuring the success of online dating was something American psychologist Harry Reis and his colleagues felt was important.

While internet dating has not altered the nature of intimacy, it has fundamentally changed the way people initiate relationships, says Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

In conventional dating, a couple meet and get to know each other gradually, but online dating works by browsing computer profiles and relationship seekers often know a lot about their date before they meet.

The main benefit of dating websites is the instant access to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of potential partners beyond a person's typical social network, says Reis, whose study reviewed more than 400 psychological studies.

There are also advantages to making first contact via the internet, says co-author Paul Eastwick, as couples can carefully craft their communications and get ''off on the right foot''.

The danger lies when people spend too much time conversing over the internet and expectations for the first face-to-face meeting are not met, says Eastwick, from Texas A&M University.

Online dating clearly has its pitfalls. The study found too many dating options overwhelm love seekers, and they often navigate away from people they would usually find appealing if given less choice.

Computer profiles also prompt people to ''shop'' for dates, focusing more on features such as physical attractiveness that become largely irrelevant once a relationship develops, says Eastwick, whose study is published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Not surprisingly, they also found ''modest misrepresentation widespread''. Many online dating sites claim to be able to unite a singleton with their perfect match based on sophisticated algorithms that assess compatibility based on everything from genetics to a pair's immune system.

But Reis and his team found no published evidence to support the claims by many websites that their matching capabilities are superior to traditional ''met-them-in-a-bar'' dating.

The main problem with matching, says Eastwick, is that it is based on the false assumption that similarities in personality and attitudes play a major role in whether a relationship will be successful long-term.

Relationship research shows that the way two people communicate, handle conflict and manage stress are of greater significance to a couple's longevity.

''But these things are very hard to assess before two people meet,'' says Eastwick.

The team suggests the perceived success of online dating is partly explained by the fact randomly pairing highly-motivated love seekers is bound to result in at least a few successful partnerships.

And, while they believe many more lonely hearts will continue to find love online, they say online dating sites can be improved markedly by using the large amount of genuine, peer-reviewed relationship science.

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