In the age of online dating there are more romantic options than there are fish in the, well, you know. On the appropriately named site Plenty of Fish, for instance, you can pore over profiles of hundreds or thousands of potential mates before deciding which ones to contact. Such unfettered choice means a better shot at true love—or so many daters believe. The more options you have, the assumption goes, the more likely you are to find the one who truly suits you.
Yet many daters are finding that less romantic choice yields top-notch results without all the angst. My longtime friend Shannon Whitaker, a family-practice physician in the Pittsburgh area, found her husband using eHarmony, which has its customers fill out a detailed compatibility survey, then sends them a restricted number of matches, typically anywhere from a few to a dozen or so at a time. Two weeks after she signed up for the site, Whitaker spotted a guy who intrigued her. They clicked so well that their second date stretched to 11 hours, and within months, they were starting to talk marriage. Whitaker was shocked—and thrilled—to have found the love of her life with relative ease. On sites with countless options, “there would have been so many people who would not have been good fits,” she says. “I don’t think I would have enjoyed weeding them all out—it would have been way too much work.”
Successes like Whitaker’s are unsurprising to Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. Schwartz has spent years arguing that limiting our options consistently leads to better outcomes. He thinks too much choice overwhelms us and makes us unhappy—a phenomenon he calls the paradox of choice. Endless choices, Schwartz says, are more stultifying than gratifying. In one canonical experiment dubbed “the jam study,” grocery-store shoppers scanning 24 different gourmet jams were less likely to make a purchase than shoppers who looked at only six jams. The shoppers choosing from a wider selection were also unhappier with the jam they’d bought.
The problem, Schwartz explains, is that when you have more options, you tend to put more pressure on yourself to make the perfect choice—and you feel more let down when it doesn’t turn out to be perfect, after all. “Even when you choose well, you end up disappointed,” Schwartz says. “You’re convinced that even though you did well, you should have done better.” Based on work by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who have shown bad feelings about losses are stronger than good feelings we have about gains, Schwartz argues that as you’re presented with countless choices, your pleasure at the prospect of more options is canceled out by the anticipated loss of making a wrong choice.
Faced with too much input, the brain functions like an overloaded circuit.
Since 2004, when Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice, researchers have quibbled with the idea that lots of choices are bound to overtax our mental resources, leading to decision paralysis and unhappiness. When Benjamin Scheibehenne, a professor of cognition and consumer behavior at the University of Geneva, set out to replicate the jam study, he found no evidence that people were less satisfied with their choices when they had a larger array to select from. “It seems to be fairly difficult to overload or confuse or frustrate people just based on the number of options,” Scheibehenne says. “In most situations, people are quite good at coping.” He points out that if abundant choice were really as paralyzing as Schwartz and others have proposed, people would constantly get stymied in everyday situations like deciding which shirt to wear or what to have for lunch.
Instead, Scheibehenne argues that people generally avoid being overwhelmed by practicing a kind of quick-and-dirty mental judo, using some kind of shortcut to limit their choices—whether that means giving certain factors more weight or simply skipping some of the presented choices. “If there are more initial options available, all decision-makers have to do is tune their filtering procedure,” he says. Scheibehenne thinks it’s smart to use some sort of conscious method to narrow your sights—whether that means relying on a web site’s compatibility formula or concocting your own instinctive rule of thumb. People who do this, he says, “usually end up with a set of reasonably good options that fit their needs, and they’re not overwhelmed anymore.”
Both Scheibehenne and Schwartz agree that limiting choices is a natural human drive. Where they differ is on whether having a large number of initial choices breeds dissatisfaction. Scheibehenne’s research indicates it doesn’t. But Schwartz counters that while we often like the idea of unrestricted choice, the satisfaction we think it will bring doesn’t always materialize. “We always think we want choice,” Schwartz writes, “but when we actually get it, we may not like it.”
The debate over the paradox of choice has often revolved around the mundane: what digital camera to buy, which tropical vacation spot to book, what to watch on Netflix. Now independent research reveals that when it comes to helping people obtain what they truly need—a romantic partner, someone with whom to share life’s traumas and triumphs—less is indeed more. Nowhere are the benefits of choice-limiting more profound than in the quintessentially human realm of love.
The brain’s architecture helps explain why a choice free-for-all can burn us out so easily. While the logic- and reason-guided prefrontal cortex is a key player in the decision-making process, it can get overwhelmed under duress. Research at Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making has shown that when people were bombarded with complex information, brain activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) ramped up—but only to a point. Faced with too much input, the DLPFC responded by decreasing its activity, much like an overloaded circuit switching itself off.
Plus, navigating difficult choices may make you want to pop a Xanax. In a Harvard study where people were presented with a series of similar options, brain areas responsible for anxiety lit up on their functional MRI scans as they struggled to make a decision. Since the Internet, social media, and crafty marketers present us with so many more similar choices now than we had even 20 years ago, our brains are likely churning out this anxious response on a regular basis. Over time, such constant indecision can darken your mood and outlook. The dopamine system, involving brain chemicals and neural actions involved in reward and punishment, is working overtime. “Under continued stress, the dopamine system tends to get depleted, and you might fall into feelings of continual despair,” says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of The Anatomy of Love, revised and updated this year. “This sort of thing could happen to the brain when you get too many choices.”
Seasoned online daters can testify to the way their eyes glaze over after they’ve clicked through a few dozen profiles. And when you don’t have any clear way to rank your options—when you dredge up a bunch of prospects who are all brunette, funny, and into rock-climbing—you’ll probably start to feel like the donkey who starved in a hayfield because he couldn’t decide which hay pile to eat. “The more people you look at, the less likely you are to choose anybody,” says Fisher. Humans lived in small hunter-gatherer groups for many thousands of years and often chose their mates from within those groups. So it makes perfect sense, Fisher says, that we’re not biologically equipped to process the mate-choice bonanza of the Internet age. (Fisher is Chief Scientific Advisor at Match.com, where she has designed a personality test for users.)
When you have a lot of options, you put more pressure on yourself to make the perfect choice.
When you try to surpass your mental limitations, you may get caught up in your fear of making a wrong choice, just as Schwartz would predict. A 2016 University of Wisconsin study of online daters found that daters who chose from a pool of 24 possible partners were less satisfied with who they picked than daters who chose from a pool of only six. On top of that, the daters who had more options were more likely to want to reverse their decisions. Perhaps they just couldn’t shake the thought that they were missing out on something better.
If you do persist in choosing someone from a large array, not only will you come away less satisfied—you’ll probably make a worse choice. When online daters had more search options in a University of Taiwan study, they spent less time considering each possibility and found it harder to sort the good prospects from the bad ones. Stretching your cognitive capacity too thinly, the researchers explain, tends to hamstring you on irrelevant details and distract you from the criteria you consider most important. That suggests that in order to assess the qualities that matter—which, for most people, are things like a partner’s honesty, his dependability, her sense of humor—you need to go deeper in your search, not wider.
Does that mean you should opt for the expert-guided, custom-flight approach proffered by vendors like eHarmony? Quite a few daters appreciate curated selection enough to be willing to pay extra for it, and Hanna Halaburda, a visiting professor at New York University and senior economist at the Bank of Canada, conducted a study (independent of eHarmony) to figure out why. For starters, Halaburda says, you face less competition in a restricted-choice scenario. You’ll be one of the few options that appears in other daters’ lists, meaning they’ll consider you more seriously than they would if you were one of thousands. And when your own choice is curtailed, you’ll evaluate your options differently, too. “Having less choice forces you to look more carefully at the person,” Halaburda says. “You don’t dismiss them as much.” That means you might hit the romantic jackpot with someone you’d once have shunned for a superficial reason (their cartilage piercing, say, or their love for the Oakland Raiders).
Most sites focused on curation also ask users to jump through some hoops to participate. The eHarmony compatibility questionnaire, for instance, can take people hours to complete, and that creates a different, smaller user pool from the beginning. “You know that once you are on this platform, your potential partner has also invested a lot to be on this platform,” Halaburda says. That commitment signifies the seriousness of your would-be paramour’s intentions, a big plus for many busy professionals. Whitaker, who was preparing to start her residency when she signed up for eHarmony, didn’t have time for flaky or commitment-shy beaux. “I’m so lucky that I found someone right away,” she says.
What’s more, a choice-narrowing computer program that takes a range of factors into account—personality quirks, religious beliefs, professed values—can save you from your own worst romantic impulses. Left to face too many choices on your own, you might revert to superficial preferences without even realizing it. In one study of speed daters, women chose their partners mostly on the basis of appearance, giving deeper qualities more weight only when they had fewer partner choices. “You’re likelier to make bad decisions when there are lots of options,” Schwartz says, “especially if it’s a complicated decision.” With a smaller pool, you can devote your mental resources to making sure your potential partners have the vital qualities most important to you in a relationship.
The less-is-more calculus changes a bit if you expect your future partner to fit very specific criteria. Northwestern marketing professor Alexander Chernev has found that people who have strong ideas about what they want relish choosing from a larger assortment. Ruthless filtering may help explain this result: If you only want to date a Sikh like yourself, or a vegan, your set of serious options will end up being manageable post-filter, even if your initial pool of options is large. For those whose preferences aren’t so specific, though, the filtering process isn’t as easy or straightforward, and the threat of overwhelming choices looms larger.
But whether the choosing process is simple or protracted, it’s no easy feat to banish the grass-is-greener thoughts that always seem to pop up later on, telling you to widen your horizons, keep your options open, bail out when things get rough. Still, Schwartz says, familiarity with the pain of too many choices—losing a true soul mate, perhaps, because you had one eye on other prospects—may help temper the anxiety of limiting your options. “The way you learn this is by suffering with the problem of choice,” he says.
Even if limiting your dating choices brings practical and emotional benefits, it’s worth asking whether those benefits justify giving up a certain amount of individual agency. Signing up for a choice-limiting site involves trusting a computer algorithm to make key calls for you—like deciding which handful of people, out of a potential pool of thousands, you’ll be able to get to know more deeply. The algorithm is a black box, the contents of which remain in flux as programmers tweak this or that line of code or re-weight one personality variable against another. Even outside the online-dating realm, some might argue that any option-limiting shortcut is a copout—that you need to take the full measure of a choice like who your life partner should be, even when choosing is tedious or uncomfortable.
It’s a compelling argument, one born of the same impulse that drives Western cultural resistance to arranged marriage. And importantly, it’s clear that we really don’t like to bail out of the choice process entirely. In Tulane University experiments where people were only given one DVD player option to buy, they were less likely to make a purchase than they were if they had two or more options—a reaction researcher Daniel Mochon calls “single-option aversion.” The paradox of choice may be alive and well, but our choices, romantic and otherwise, must also be numerous enough to be meaningful.
So is there an ideally sized choice set when it comes to dating—one large enough to include variety and depth, yet small enough that you can fairly weigh each prospect’s potential without tripping your brain’s overload switch? “People are trying to make a hard problem easy by suggesting there’s a magic number,” Schwartz says. In experiments involving consumer products, he points out, the optimal number of choices seems to be between 8 and 12.
Fisher puts people somewhere in the middle of that range. “Once you’ve met nine people who are vaguely in the ballpark, choose one and get to know that person better. If nothing works in that nine, go for another nine,” she says. “But stop going out with a million different people. The human brain has never been built to have 20,000 choices for a partner.” Until recently in human history, most people only would have had a handful of mate choices. Yet most partners stayed together for life, and real-life stories of deathless love—Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, Marie and Pierre Curie—still echo through the generations.
What forms and cements lasting partnerships, then as today, is not unfettered choice that serial daters imagine will usher in the perfect match. It’s finding someone who feels like home, in the truest sense of the word, and settling in. “Often, you don’t find out about the things that matter until you get to know somebody pretty well,” Schwartz says. “With a million options, you’re less likely to persevere.”
In the realm of relationships, then, keeping choice in check is what frees you to forge the thoughtful connections that make for lasting love. Mulling a manageable number of options with care and depth is a strategy more exhaustive—and, ultimately, more effective—than scanning every single profile on dating sites. Paradoxically enough, narrowing your sights might end up being the most liberating romantic choice of all.
Elizabeth Svoboda is a writer in San Jose, California, and the author of What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.