Psychology and online dating

The point of our social experiment on 21Pictures is to prime people’s dating instincts and encourage them to go with their hunches on just these kinds of cues.

We hope to learn, among other things, what kind of pictures give the best insights, what content users most readily connect with, and what someone’s choice of pictures says about them.

So a person’s profile might feature a shot of their bookcase, say, or their favourite coffee shop, their pet, some photos from their travels, a poster of a favourite film, and so on.

The effect is to evoke a sense of someone, rather than an algorithmic representation of them.

Intuitively building an idea of a person from snapshots of their life – “thin-slicing” as it is known in psychology – is the next best thing when you can’t actually meet them face-to-face. Psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas, who studies how people form impressions of others from cues in their environment, has found that someone’s possessions can teach us more about them than a direct conversation, and more even than what their friends or colleagues might say about them.

But as Eli Finkel at Northwestern University and colleagues have shown, it isn’t that helpful. In January, I launched a new dating site called 21Pictures which tries to use insights from psychology to create a more intuitive experience, where daters can make the most of their hard-wired social intelligence when choosing a partner.

Not only is it difficult to guess what others will find attractive in us, but we also can’t be sure what we really want in our partners until we meet them. It’s based on research I did for my book , published by Oneworld this week.

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