Colleen hasn’t had much luck with online dating.
It’s not because she hasn’t given it an honest try. She considers herself a very social person, but text communication has never been as intuitive to her as face-to-face interaction. Still, with so many other people in their twenties on dating apps, she figured she might as well give online dating a chance. She created an account on OkCupid and set a challenge for herself: she would go on three dates. Three chances to give it a shot before she made a judgement about whether or not she liked online dating.
It didn’t go well. Rather than meeting good matches, she found herself with people she would never have decided to go out with if she had met them in person first, because they had nothing in common. What’s more, the amount of inappropriate and sometimes downright degrading messages she would get from guys was enough to turn her off dating services. It just wasn’t worth the frustration.
That doesn’t mean that Colleen is off the grid. She’s met people online through other channels. She actually did go on a date with a guy she met on Twitter through a mutual friend, and she met and bonded with one of her current friends through Words With Friends.
Something about the context of online dating platforms just didn’t click with her. The context felt too much like you were selling yourself to strangers.
So she deleted the OkCupid app off her phone. She decided to adopt a “just say yes” attitude–now, when opportunities for exciting and unusual experiences arose in real life, she would throw herself in head-first, just so see what happens. That’s what brought her to the Venngage headquarters on a Wednesday evening in January.
What called her there? A study with the potential for love at the end of it. What would she be doing in this study? Surprisingly, the very thing she had decided not to do anymore–talk to a stranger she was matched with online with the purpose of falling in love. The difference this time? She was going to use a “love hack” to make a connection.
The 36 questions that lead to love
If there was a way to hack love, would you try it?
Around this time last year, the New York Times published an article titled “No. 37: Big Wedding Or Small?” The article presented a quiz comprised of 36 questions that supposedly lead to love–or, at least, an accelerated feeling of intimacy between strangers. The idea was that if you sat down with a perfect stranger and exchanged these 36 questions, you would have shared enough intimate information with them to create a feeling of closeness in just one conversation.
The NYT article actually pulled the questions from a 1997 study led by Dr. Arthur Aron titled “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings.” The purpose of the study was to achieve an accelerated sense of intimacy between strangers in only 45 minutes. Students in a university psychology class were partnered up and instructed to ask each other 36 questions designed to probe intimate and unguarded topics of conversation. This prompted participants to reveal personal thoughts and experiences not typically shared with someone during a first meeting.
At Venngage, we wanted to test the study but with a 21st century twist: can people fall in love through text conversation? After all, most dating services involve a period of text communication between matched partners before they meet in person. Would the same study work if conducted entirely through text communication, without any physical or verbal cues? Then we decided to raise the stakes: what if participants didn’t even know what their partner looked like?
Nowadays, dating apps like Tinder (an estimated 50 million users) and Bumble (over 500,000), eHarmony (33 million registered users) and OkCupid (12 million users) pull in people looking for the key to romance. All of these services that use algorithms to match people up can be considered take a hacking approach to romance. But all of these apps rely fairly heavily on the profile pictures people use. According to the research done by Christian Rudder, author of Dataclysm, “photos drive 90% of the action in online dating.” 
Our study would approach matching people up from a different, entirely personality-based angle.
This is what caught Colleen’s attention when she saw our call for participants. She had read about the exercise last year and was intrigued by our spin on it–it sounded exciting. In her romantic history, the more she liked a partner’s personality, the more attractive she found them. Still, she didn’t have high expectations for this exercise–true to her “just say yes” attitude, she decided to give it a go and if she met someone she liked, then great.
We paired her up with someone we thought would make a good match. Now we just had to wait and see how the study went.
Can you get to know someone through text conversation as quickly as you can get to know someone in person? How much of our feeling of closeness relies on seeing the other person’s face–their reactions, their mannerisms, their movements? And how much of our attraction to a person is reliant on looks?
In honor of Valentine’s Day, we positioned the study as romantic, but ultimately a friendly intimacy at the end of the study would prove the process functional.
We assembled a group of 32 participants ranging from 21-34 years of age. We sent them a preliminary questionnaire asking for their name, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and profession, as well as a number of attitudinal questions like whether or not they drink or smoke, their level of spontaneity, etc. Once we had gathered all of their responses, we did our best to match the participants with a partner with whom they shared similar attitudes and values. None of the participants had any idea who they had been paired up with.
We then sent the participants an email instructing them to come to our office on a Wednesday evening for around two hours to participate in the study.
When the participants arrived, we pointed them to a boardroom where the WiFi connection information and refreshments were set up. We then instructed them to take a seat at an empty work station and refrain from talking to the other participants. The participants then logged into the Slack accounts we set up for them and entered their assigned channel where they would communicate in private with their partner.
Standing at the front of the room, I offered the participants the following instructions (adapted from the instructions provided in the original study):
“You will be paired with another person in this room whom you don’t know. (We have matched you, based on the questionnaire you completed prior to arriving here, with someone we think will like you and whom you will like). The purpose of this exercise is to form a sense of intimacy between you and your partner at an accelerated pace.
Once the conversation period begins you may exchange names with your partner. Over 45 minutes, you and the person we have paired you with will talk about a series of particular topics designed to help you get close. Your conversation will be conducted entirely through text chat, with no physical interaction. Please refrain from looking around at other participants to figure out who your partner is–we want to keep it anonymous until the end of the conversation period.
At the end of the conversation period, you will have the option of exchanging contact information with your partner over text chat. After that, you will be given 10 minutes to individually complete a post-conversation questionnaire reflecting on your experience.
If you would like a drink refill or more food, please put raise your hand and we can get it for you, so as not to alert your partner of who you are.”
I set the timer for the first 15 minutes and the room immediately filled with the sound of fingers clacking on keyboards. As the participants chatted, I looked around at their faces: many of them with brows furrowed in concentration and many of them smiling.
During a bathroom break in the middle of the study, some of the participants complained that 15 minutes was not enough time to respond to the questions in as much detail as they would like. Since it was taking people considerably longer to type out their responses than if they were to exchange them verbally, we decided in the spur of the moment to provide participants an extra 10 minutes to complete the third and final set of questions. This culminated in a total question period of 55 minutes, instead of the original 45 minutes.
Once the conversation period was over and they had completed their post-conversation questionnaires, participants had the opportunity to seek out their partners in the room. Some people made a beeline for the door, clearly not excited to meet their partners. But many of the participants did find their partners. One couple even left together to get a drink and continue their conversation, this time with the nuance of physical cues.
Colleen exchanged contact information with her partner. She sought him out in the room afterwards: a man named Ryan. Their post-conversation questionnaires expressed the same thing: were definitely both interested. But what about everyone else who participated?
Did anyone fall truly, madly, deeply in love after their 55 minute conversation?
Well, probably not. But 81% of the participants did exchange contact information at the end of the conversation period–and when asked to rate the likelihood that they would contact their partner after the study, 47% answered very likely.
In the original study conducted by Dr. Arthur Aron, after 45 minutes of interaction, the relationship of partners was rated closer than the closest relationship in the lives of 30% of similar students. Our results showed that our study did not achieve that same level of closeness. After 55 minutes of interaction, 16% of participants reported feeling the same level of closeness to their partner as they do to the closest person in their life; 84% reported feeling less close in comparison; and 0% reported feeling more close in comparison.
So it would appear that the lack of physical cues did, in fact, prevent participants from feeling very close to one another. But that doesn’t mean that participants didn’t enjoy the experience. When asked if they found discussing personal topics over text easier than in person, 13% of participants found the restrictions difficult, while 37% of participants expressed ambivalence when it came to conversation through text versus in person. The remaining 50% of participants actually found it easier to discuss personal topics through text.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to a lot of people. One participant wrote in their post-conversation questionnaire, “Without the feeling of judgement with facial expressions it was easier to be honest.” Another participant, however, wrote that they found the experience “Frustrating. It’s hard to get a real sense of the person [and it’s] hard to strive for genuineness when you can’t read their underlying tone.”
50% of people find it easier to discuss personal topics through text. Click To Tweet
Another woman commented that by discussing personal topics right at the get-go, it was easier to go backwards to small talk in person because she already had context–“it’s like lubrication [for the conversation].” Noting that she is a person who doesn’t like small talk and who hates awkward lulls in conversations, she appreciated having intimate information about her partner to draw on.
But despite the majority of participants either preferring (50%) or feeling ambivalent towards discussing personal topics through text (37%), when it comes to interactions in general, the majority of participants (53%) still preferred interacting with people in person. When asked if they found text conversation preferable to in-person conversation. What I’m inferring from this is that while it may be easier to get into personal topics when you’re not facing your partner, most people would not want their interactions to stay strictly electronic. What’s more, many of those that were interested in their partner after the conversation still expressed a desire to interact with their partner in person before passing any judgements.
Multiple participants also commented in their questionnaires that the 15 minute time limits drastically restrained their conversations. What is surprising is that there is no mention of the time limit being a particular hindrance to the participants in the original study. This suggests a couple of things: one, that it takes longer to communicate through text (many people type more slowly than they speak); two, that people are more preoccupied with how they word things when communicating through text than when communicating verbally; and three, that answers require more explanation and thought when communicated through text than in person with accompanying physical cues.
53% of people prefer in-person conversation to text conversation. Click To Tweet
One woman speculated that she probably would not have felt so pressured by the time limit if she had chatted with her partner in person because their facial cues would have made up for short or incomplete answers. She found herself worrying over whether her partner found her answers too short or her transitions between topics too abrupt or rude. Her attitude was that it’s easier to give people more credit for their pauses and unfinished thoughts when you can see their facial expressions than when you’re sitting there waiting for their next typed-out response.
When I asked her whether she was less trustful of her partner than other people she had gone on first dates with in person, she furtively said no, that her answers were authentic and she expected the same authenticity from her partner. Despite her own insecurities about how her words would be interpreted, she was willing to trust that her partner would be truthful with her.
One week later…
We sent out a questionnaire to the participants one week later to see if anyone had followed up with their partners after the study (27 people got back to us). We asked them if they had talked to their partner since the day of the study, if they had done something with them in person, and if they planned on maintaining communication with them moving forward.
While about half of the participants (48%) had a conversation with their partner in the week after the study, and about a quarter (25%) had more than one conversation, the majority of participants did not intend to see their partner again in the future (78%).
For some, it was simply a matter of not feeling enough attraction in person to pursue their partner. One person admitted to simply being “too lazy” to bother keeping in contact. Most participants said that they would consider using the questions again but in person, or that they would consider pulling some of the questions and using them as ice breakers, rather than going through the entire set of 36 questions. Only seven participants said that yes, they would use the 36 questions over text again.
When it comes to romance, for most people, physical chemistry is too important to overlook.
But it wasn’t all for nothing. When we followed up with Colleen, she had this to say:
We also received this email from another participant (who asked to remain anonymous):
If anything, at least the whole experience was weird enough to bring a few perfect strangers closer together.
Getting a clearer picture
So our results show that text-only conversation actually acts as a barrier when attempting to reach accelerated closeness, despite making it easier for more reserved people to discuss personal topics. After all, multiple participants noted in their post-conversation questionnaires that physical attraction is an important aspect of their romantic relationships, and that a person’s facial expressions can reveal things about them that text can’t. If we had asked participants to even just show a photo of themselves to their partner, the conversations and responses would probably have been different.
While online dating services are an effective way for people to get in touch with potential matches, in order for relationships to progress to something more, most people still require face-to-face interaction.
That being said, participants told me that they appreciate the sort of screening process of chatting online before deciding to meet someone in person. After the study, one man told me that his longest lasting relationships in the past involved a longer period of texting before they actually met in person. Meanwhile, the same woman who said she trusted her partner to be authentic despite not seeing them in person also admitted to frequently searching her matches on social media before deciding to meet them.
Dating apps make receiving a sizeable number and variety of matches easy, but they still feel like a potential risk for many people. Statistics about the percentage of couples who met online versus in person vary but across the board, studies show that couples who meet online are still a minority. A 2010 Match.com survey reported that 17% of couples married in the last three years met online. According to a study conducted by Mic, however, only 10% of people aged 18-34 years old met through online dating. And according to Statistic Brain, 20% of current committed relationships in America began online.
But those numbers are projected to grow–according to research done by eHarmony, 38% of couples are expected to meet online in the near future, with that number rising to 70% of couples by 2040.
By 2040, a projected 70% of couples will meet online. Click To Tweet
One factor remains the same, though: when looking for love, people generally seem to regard online dating as a gateway to in-person interaction. Text conversation is enough to pique most people’s interest, but until they meet them in person, they generally don’t know for certain how they feel about their matches.
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 Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, 2015. Page 97.