Saturday, February 25, 2006

Principia ardor.

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The Atlantic Monthly | March 2006

How Do I Love Thee?

A growing number of Internet dating sites are relying on academic researchers to develop a new science of attraction. A firsthand report from the front lines of an unprecedented social experiment

by Lori Gottlieb

.....

I'd been sitting in Dr. Neil Clark Warren’s office for less than fifteen minutes when he told me he had a guy for me. It wasn’t surprising that the avuncular seventy-one-year-old founder of eHarmony.com, one of the nation’s most popular online dating services, had matchmaking on his mind. The odd thing was that he was eager to hook me up without having seen my eHarmony personality profile.

I’d come to the eHarmony headquarters in Pasadena, California, in early October to learn more about the site’s “scientifically proven” and patented Compatibility Matching System. Apparently, the science wasn’t working for me. The day before, after I’d taken the company’s exhaustive (and exhausting) 436-question personality survey, the computer informed me that of the approximately 9 million eHarmony members, more than 40 percent of whom are men, I had zero matches. Not just in my city, state, region, or country, but in the entire world. So Warren, who looks like Orville Redenbacher and speaks with the folksy cadence of Garrison Keillor, suggested setting me up with one of his company’s advisory board members, whom he described as brilliant, Jewish, and thirty-eight years old. According to Warren, this board member, like me, might have trouble finding a match on eHarmony.

“Let me tell you why you’re such a difficult match,” Warren said, facing me on one of his bright floral sofas. He started running down the backbone of eHarmony’s predictive model of broad-based compatibility, the so-called twenty-nine dimensions (things like curiosity, humor, passion, intellect), and explaining why I and my prospective match were such outliers.

“I could take the nine million people on our site and show you dimension by dimension how we’d lose people for you,” he began. “Just on IQ alone—people with an IQ lower than 120, say. Okay, we’ve eliminated people who are not intellectually adequate. We could do the same for people who aren’t creative enough, or don’t have your brilliant sense of humor. See, when you get on the tails of these dimensions, it’s really hard to match you. You’re too bright. You’re too thoughtful. The biggest thing you’ve got to do when you’re gifted like you are is to be patient.”

After the over-the-top flattery wore off—and I’ll admit, it took an embarrassingly long time—I told Warren that most people I know don’t join online dating sites to be patient. Impatience with real-world dating, in fact, is precisely what drives many singles to the fast-paced digital meat market. From the moment Match.com, the first such site, appeared in 1995, single people suddenly had twenty-four-hour access to thousands of other singles who met their criteria in terms of race, religion, height, weight, even eye color and drinking habits.

Nearly overnight, it seemed, dozens of similar sites emerged, and online dating became almost de rigueur for busy singles looking for love. According to a recent Pew survey, 31 percent of all American adults (63 million people) know someone who has used a dating Web site, while 26 percent (53 million people) know someone who has gone out with a person he or she met through a dating Web site. But was checking off boxes in columns of desired traits, like an à la carte Chinese take-out menu, the best way to find a soul mate?

Enter eHarmony and the new generation of dating sites, among them PerfectMatch.com and Chemistry.com. All have staked their success on the idea that long-term romantic compatibility can be predicted according to scientific principles—and that they can discover those principles and use them to help their members find lasting love. To that end they’ve hired high-powered academics, devised special algorithms for relationship-matching, developed sophisticated personality questionnaires, and put into place mechanisms for the long-term tracking of data. Collectively, their efforts mark the early days of a social experiment of unprecedented proportions, involving millions of couples and possibly extending over the course of generations. The question at the heart of this grand trial is simple: In the subjective realm of love, can cold, hard science help?

Although eHarmony was the first dating site to offer science-based matching, Neil Clark Warren seems like an unlikely pioneer in the field. Even though he earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Chicago, in 1967, he never had much of a passion for academic research—or an interest in couples. “I was scared to death of adults,” he told me. “So I did child therapy for a while.” With a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, he went on to Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology, in southern California, where he taught and practiced humanistic psychology (what he calls “client-centered stuff”) in the vein of his University of Chicago mentor, Carl Rogers. “I hated doing research,” he admitted, before adding with a smile, “In fact, I was called ‘Dr. Warm.’ ”

Fittingly, it was Warren’s family, not academia, that piqued his interest in romantic compatibility. “When my daughters came along, that was a big pivot in my life in thinking about how do two people get together,” he told me. “I started reading in the literature and realizing what a big chance they had of not having a satisfying marriage. I started trying to look into it.”

Soon he began a private practice of couples therapy—with a twist. “People have always thought, wrongly, that psychotherapy is a place to go deal with problems,” he said. “So when a couple would come in, I’d say, ‘Tell me how you fell in love. Tell me the funniest thing that’s happened in your marriage.’ If you want to make a relationship work, don’t talk about what you find missing in it! Talk about what you really like about it.”

Warren is a big proponent of what he likes to call “folksy wisdom.” One look at the shelves in his office confirms this. “I’ve been reading this little book about the Muppets—you know, Jim Henson,” he said. “And I’ve been reading another book about Mister Rogers. I mean, Mister Rogers was brilliant beyond belief! He got a hold of concepts so thoroughly that he could transmit them to six-year-old kids! Do you know how much you have to get a hold of a concept to transmit it simply? His idea of simple-but-profound has had a profound influence on me.”

The basis of eHarmony’s matching system also sounds simple but profound. In successful relationships, Warren says, “similarities are like money in the bank. Differences are like debts you owe. It’s all right to have a few differences, as long as you have plenty of equity in your account.”

He leaned in and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mister Rogers and Jim Henson,” Warren continued, “they got a hold of the deep things of life and were able to put them out there. So that’s what we want to do with our products. We want to put them out there in a way that you’d say, ‘This is common sense. This seems right, this seems like it would work.’ Our idea of broad-based compatibility, I put it out there in front of you. Does that seem right?”

Whether or not it seems right on an intuitive level is almost beside the point. After all, eHarmony’s selling point, its very brand identity, is its scientific compatibility system. That’s where Galen Buckwalter comes in.

A vice president of research and development for the company, Buckwalter is in charge of recruiting what he hopes will be twenty to twenty-five top relationship researchers away from academia—just as he was lured away by Warren nine years ago. A former psychology graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary (his dissertation was titled “Neuropsychological Factors Affecting Survival in Malignant Glioma Patients Treated with Autologous Stimulated Lymphocytes”), Buckwalter had become an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, where he was studying the effects of hormones on cognition, when he got the call from Warren.

“Neil knew I lived and breathed research, and he had this idea to try to develop some empirically based model to match people,” Buckwalter said when I visited him at his office at eHarmony. He wore a black T-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, and had a hairstyle reminiscent of Einstein’s. “He wasn’t necessarily thinking, over the Internet—maybe a storefront operation like Great Expectations.” Relationships weren’t Buckwalter’s area, but he welcomed the challenge. “A problem is a problem, and relationships are a good problem,” he said. “In the research context, it’s certainly an endlessly fascinating question.”

With the help of a graduate student, Buckwalter reviewed the psychological literature to identify the areas that might be relevant in predicting success in long-term relationships. “Once we identified all those areas, then we put together a questionnaire—just a massively long questionnaire,” he said. “It was probably close to a thousand questions. Because if you don’t ask it, you’re never gonna know. So we had tons of questions on ability, even more on interest. Just every type of personality aspect that was ever measured, we were measuring it all.”

Because it wasn’t practical to execute a thirty-year longitudinal study, he and Warren decided to measure existing relationships, surveying people who were already married. The idea was to look for patterns that produce satisfaction in marriages, then try to reproduce them in the matching of singles.

Buckwalter’s studies soon yielded data that confirmed one of Warren’s longtime observations: namely, that the members of a happy couple are far more similar to each other than are the members of an unhappy couple. Compatibility, in other words, rests on shared traits. “I can’t tell you how delighted I was,” Warren said, “when the factor-analytic studies started bringing back the same stuff I’d seen for years.”

But could this be true across the board? I told Warren that my most successful relationships have been with men who are far less obsessive than I am. Warren assured me that’s not a similarity their system matches for. “You don’t want two obsessives,” he explained. “They’ll drive each other crazy. You don’t find two control freaks in a great marriage. So we try to tweak the model for that. Fifty percent of the ball game is finding two people who are stable.”

For Warren, a big question remained: What should be done with these findings? Originally, he had partnered with his son-in-law, Greg Forgatch, a former real-estate developer, to launch the business. Their first thought was to produce educational videotapes on relationship compatibility. After all, Warren had recently written his book, Finding the Love of Your Life.

“We tried so hard to make videotapes and audiotapes,” Warren said. “I went into the studio and made lists. We came up with a hundred things singles need. But singles don’t want education; they want flesh! They want a person. So that’s when, in 1997, we said, ‘We’ve gotta help people find somebody who would be good for them. Some body.’ ”

To connect singles and create a data pool for more research, the Internet seemed the best option. Based on a study of 5,000 married couples, Warren put together the compatibility model that became the basis for eHarmony. “We got encouraged by everybody, ‘Get out there, get out there! The first person to market is going to be the most successful, ” Warren recalled. But he insisted on getting the matching system right before launching the site—and that didn’t happen until August of 2000, during the dot-com bust. By 2001 he was contemplating declaring bankruptcy.

“And then,” Warren recalled, “we found an error in our matching formula, so a whole segment of our people were not getting matched. It was an error with all the Christian people on the site.”

This is a sensitive topic for Warren, who bristles at the widely held opinion that eHarmony is a Christian dating site. The company’s chief operating officer, he offered by way of rebuttal, is Jewish, and Buckwalter, who became a quadriplegic at age sixteen after jumping into a river and breaking his neck, is agnostic. And while Warren describes himself as “a passionate Christian” and proudly declares, “I love Jesus,” he worried about narrowing the site with too many questions about spiritual beliefs. Which is where the error came in.

“We had seven questions on religion,” he explained, “and we eliminated four of them. But we forgot to enter that into the matching formula! These were seven-point questions. You needed twenty-eight points to get matched with a Christian person, but there was no way you could get them! We only had three questions! So every Christian person who had come to us had zero matches.”

Fortunately, a wave of positive publicity, featuring married couples who’d met through eHarmony and the naturally charismatic Warren, turned things around. Still, Warren said of the innocent mistake, “you kind of wonder how many relationships fall apart for reasons like this—ow many businesses?”

Today, eHarmony’s business isn’t just about using science to match singles online. Calling itself a “relationship-enhancement service,” the company has recently created a venture-capital-funded think tank for relationship and marital research, headed up by Dr. Gian Gonzaga, a scientist from the well-known marriage-and-family lab at the University of California at Los Angeles. The effort, as Gonzaga put it to me recently, is “sort of like a Bell Labs or Microsoft for love.”

An energetic, attractive thirty-five-year-old, Gonzaga thought twice about leaving the prestige of academia. “It seemed cheesy at first,” he said. “I mean, this was a dating service.” But after interviewing with Warren, he realized that conducting his research under the auspices of eHarmony would offer certain advantages. He’d be unfettered by teaching and grant-writing, and there would be no sitting on committees or worrying about tenure. More important, since his research would now be funded by business, he’d have the luxury of doing studies with large groups of ready subjects over many years—but without the constraints of having to produce a specific product.

“We’re using science in an area most people think of as inherently unscientific,” Gonzaga said. So far, the data are promising: a recent Harris Interactive poll found that between September of 2004 and September of 2005, eHarmony facilitated the marriages of more than 33,000 members—an average of forty-six marriages a day. And a 2004 in-house study of nearly 300 married couples showed that people who met through eHarmony report more marital satisfaction than those who met by other means. The company is now replicating that study in a larger sample.

“We have massive amounts of data!” Warren said. “Twelve thousand new people a day taking a 436-item questionnaire! Ultimately, our dream is to have the biggest group of relationship psychologists in the country. It’s so easy to get people excited about coming here. We’ve got more data than they could collect in a thousand years.”

But how useful is this sort of data for single people like me? Despite Warren’s disclaimer about what a tough eHarmony match I am, I did finally get some profiles in my inbox. They included a bald man with a handlebar moustache, who was fourteen inches taller than me; a five-foot-four-inch attorney with no photos; and a film editor whose photo shows him wearing a kilt—and not in an ironic way. Was this the best science could do?

When I asked Galen Buckwalter about this, he laughed, indicating that he’d heard the question before. “The thing you have to remember about our system is we’re matching on these algorithms for long-term compatibility,” he said. “Long-term satisfaction is not the same as short-term attraction. A lot of people, when they see their initial matches, it’s like, ‘This is crap!’ ”

In ads and on his Web site, Warren talks about matching people “from the inside out.” Was eHarmony suggesting that I overlook something as basic as romantic chemistry? “When we started out,” Buckwalter said, “we were almost that naive.” But now, he added, eHarmony is conducting research on the nature of physical attraction.

“We’re trying to find out if we can predict physical chemistry with the same degree of statistical certainty that we’ve used to predict long-term satisfaction through our compatibility matching. In general, people seem to be attracted to people who share their physical attributes,” Buckwalter explained, noting that he has found some exceptions, like height preference. “There’s a lot of variability on that dimension,” he said. “A person’s height, it turns out, is not a consistent predictor of short-term attraction.” Meanwhile, Buckwalter’s team is in the process of testing new hypotheses.

“We’re still convinced that our compatibility-matching process is essential for long-term satisfaction, so we’re not going to mess with that,” he insisted. “But if we can fit a short-term attraction model on top of that, and it’s also empirically driven, that’s the Holy Grail.”

Over at Chemistry.com, a new site launched by Match.com, short-term attraction is already built into the system. This competitor of eHarmony’s was developed with help from Match.com’s chief scientific adviser, Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, whose research focuses on the brain physiology of romantic love and sexuality. Chemistry.com is currently assembling a multidisciplinary group of psychologists, relationship counselors, sociologists, neuroscientists, and sexologists to serve as consultants.

The company sought out Fisher precisely because its market research revealed that although a large segment of singles wanted a scientific approach, they didn’t want it to come at the expense of romantic chemistry. “On most of the other sites, there’s this notion of ‘fitness matching,’ ” Fisher said from her office in New York City. “You may have the same goals, intelligence, good looks, political beliefs. But you can walk into a room, and every one of those boys might come from the same background, have the same level of intelligence, and so on, and maybe you’ll talk to three but won’t fall in love with any of them. And with the fourth one, you do. What creates that chemistry?”

It’s a constellation of factors, Fisher told me. Sex drive, for instance, is associated with the hormone testosterone in both men and women. Romantic love is associated with elevated activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine and probably also another one, norepinepherine. And attachment is associated with the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. “It turns out,” she said, “that seminal fluid has all of these chemicals in it. So I tell my students, ‘Don’t have sex if you don’t want to fall in love.’ ”

Romantic love, Fisher maintains, is a basic mating drive—more powerful than the sex drive. “If you ask someone to go to bed with you, and they reject you,” she says, “you don’t kill yourself. But if you’re rejected in love, you might kill yourself.”

For Chemistry.com’s matching system, Fisher translated her work with neurotransmitters and hormones into discrete personality types. “I’ve always been extremely impressed with Myers-Briggs,” she said, referring to the personality assessment tool that classifies people according to four pairs of traits: Introversion versus Extroversion, Sensing versus Intuition, Thinking versus Feeling, and Judging versus Perceiving. “They had me pinned to the wall when I took the test, and my sister, too. So when Chemistry.com approached me, I said to myself, ‘I’m an anthropologist who studies brain chemistry, what do I know about personality?’ ”

Turns out she knew quite a bit: Genes for the activity of dopamine are associated with motivation, curiosity, anxiety, and optimism. Genes for the metabolism of serotonin, another neurotransmitter, tend to modulate one’s degree of calm, stability, popularity, and religiosity. Testosterone is associated with being rational, analytical, exacting, independent, logical, rank-oriented, competitive, irreverent, and narcissistic. And the hormone estrogen is associated with being imaginative, creative, insightful, humane, sympathetic, agreeable, flexible, and verbal.

“So I had these four sheets of paper,” Fisher continued. “And I decided to give each a name. Serotonin became the Builder. Dopamine, the Explorer. Testosterone, the Director. And estrogen—I wish I’d called it the Ambassador or Diplomat, but I called it the Negotiator.” Myers-Briggs, she says, “clearly knew the four types but didn’t know the chemicals behind them.”

The 146-item compatibility questionnaire on Chemistry.com correlates users’ responses with evidence of their levels of these various chemicals. One question, for instance, offers drawings of a hand, then asks:

Which one of the following images most closely resembles your left hand?
Index finger slightly longer than ring finger
Index finger about the same length as ring finger
Index finger slightly shorter than ring finger
Index finger significantly shorter than ring finger

The relevance of this question might baffle the average online dater accustomed to responding to platitudes like, “How would you describe your perfect first date?” But Fisher explains that elevated fetal testosterone determines the ratio of the second and fourth finger in a particular way as it simultaneously builds the male and female brain. So you can actually look at someone’s hand and get a fair idea of the extent to which they are likely to be a Director type (ring finger longer than the index finger) or a Negotiator type (index finger longer or the same size).

Another question goes like this:

How often do you vividly imagine extreme life situations, such as being stranded on a desert island or winning the lottery?
Almost never
Sometimes
Most of the time
All the time

“Someone who answers ‘All the time’ is a definite Negotiator,” Fisher said. “High estrogen activity is associated with extreme imagination.”

While other sites gather data based on often unreliable self-reports (“How romantic do you consider yourself to be?”), many of the Chemistry.com questions are designed to translate visual interpretation into personality assessment, thus eliminating some of the unreliability. In one, the user is presented with a book’s jacket art. We see a woman in a sexy spaghetti-strapped dress gazing at a man several feet away in the background, where he leans on a stone railing. The sky is blue, and they’re overlooking an open vista. “What is the best title for this book?” the questionnaire asks, and the choices are as follows:

A Spy in Rimini
Anatomy of Friendship: A Smart Guide for Smart People
A Scoundrel’s Story
Things Left Unsaid

According to Fisher, each response is correlated with one of the four personality types: Choice A corresponds to Explorer, B to Builder, C to Director, and D to Negotiator.

Even sense of humor can be broken down by type, with questions like “Do you sometimes make faces at yourself in the mirror?” (people with a sense of humor do) and “At the zoo, which do you generally prefer to watch?” (the reply “monkeys and apes” indicates more of a funny bone than “lions and tigers”). According to Fisher, a Director likes people to laugh at his or her jokes; a Negotiator likes to be around someone funny so he or she can laugh at that person’s jokes; an Explorer is spontaneous and laughs at just about anything; and a Builder, she suspects, generally isn’t as funny as the others.

But how to match people up according to Fisher’s four personality types, and under what circumstances, isn’t so straightforward. Another question, for instance, presents four smiling faces and asks:

Take a look at the faces below. Are their smiles sincere?

Fisher says that people with high levels of estrogen—usually women—have better social skills, and are better at reading other people. So users who choose the correct “real” smiles (pictures two and three) will be the Negotiators. This, Fisher says, is an area where “complementarity” might be important. The problem with sites like eHarmony, she believes, is that they place too much emphasis on similarity, whereas, in her view, falling in love depends on two elements: similarity and complementarity. “We also want someone who masks our flaws,” she explained. “For example, people with poor social skills sometimes gravitate toward people with good social skills. I’m an Explorer, so I don’t really need a partner who is socially skilled. That’s not essential to me. But it may be essential to a Director, who’s generally less socially skilled.”

Chemistry.com’s compatibility questionnaire also examines secondary personality traits. To illustrate, Fisher cited her own relationship. “I’m currently going out with a man,” she said, “and of course I made him take the test instantly. We’re both Explorers and older. I’m not sure two Explorers want to raise a baby together, because nobody will be home. But in addition, I’m a Negotiator and he’s a Director type. Our dominant personality is similar, but underneath, we’re complementary.”

Determining which works best—similarity or complementarity—may change with the circumstances. A young woman who’s an Explorer, Fisher said, might be attracted to a Builder, someone who’s more of a homebody, loyal, dependable, and protective. But the pair will be more compatible if their secondary personalities match—maybe they’re both Negotiators underneath.

“Nobody is directly locked into any one of these temperament types,” Fisher said. “That’s why we provide each person with both a major and a minor personality profile. Do Explorers go well together? Do likes attract likes? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”

If this sounds a bit, well, unscientific, Fisher is the first to admit it. “I have theories about what personality type a person would be most ideally suited with,” she told me, “but I also trust people to tell me what they are looking for. All throughout the questionnaire are checks and balances to what are just Helen Fisher’s theories.”

This is why she decided to include an item on the Chemistry.com questionnaire that asks about the traits of a person’s partner in his or her most successful former relationship: Was that person an Explorer, a Builder, a Director, a Negotiator? “Anybody can match somebody for values. But I’m hoping to create a system so that five years later they still fascinate each other.”

At the same time, Fisher wants couples to be fascinated by each other early on. In other words, why waste time e‑mailing back and forth to get to know a potential match over the course of several weeks, as eHarmony encourages its users to do, if there won’t be any chemistry when they finally meet? Chemistry.com’s guided 1-2-3-Meet system provides a step-by-step structure to get couples face to face as soon as possible for that all-important “vibe check.” Then there’s a post-meeting “chemistry check,” where each person offers feedback about the date.

The goal is to incorporate this information into the algorithm to provide better matches, but it can also serve as an accuracy check of the data. Say, for instance, that Jack describes himself as a fashionable dresser, but Jill reports that he showed up for their date in flip-flops, cut-offs, and a do-rag. If the feedback from a number of Jack’s first meetings indicates the same problem, Chemistry.com will send him an e-mail saying, “Jack, wear a pair of trousers.”

When I asked Helen Fisher how the site’s scientific algorithm might change based on this user feedback, she said that perhaps the computer could pick up cues about a person’s physical type based on the people he or she finds attractive or unattractive, then send that person closer matches. Or, it might know better than to match me—an avid reader attracted to literary types—with the guy whose personality assessment indicates a literary bent but whose essay reads as follows:

While I do read books, I have a notoriously short attention span for them. As a result, partially read copies of numerous really good (so I’m told) books are scattered around my apartment. When these get set aside, it’s because I’ve gotten sucked into magazines … Every few days, the magazines lose out to DVDs.

It’s also possible that user feedback could change the matching formula completely. “We always look at data,” Fisher said. “If we find that Explorer/Builder to Director/Negotiator is working for more people, if we find the biochemistry is stronger, we’ll adjust that in the formula.” Fisher acknowledged that the system right now is mostly a learning tool—a way to collect large amounts of data, look for patterns, and draw conclusions based on the findings.

Still, even a thoroughly researched biochemical model won’t prevent glitches in the matching system. In Fisher’s view, for example, no scientifically based site would pair her with the men she’s dated, because, as she put it, “they’re all better-looking than me.”

“It would be preposterous for anyone to say they can create a formula that works perfectly,” she said emphatically. “But I do believe that science can help us get close, and that there’s a lot more to be learned.”

This test doesn’t pretend to be about chemistry,” said Dr. Pepper Schwartz—who developed the Duet Total Compatibility System in conjunction with the two-year-old site PerfectMatch.com. She was speaking by cell phone from San Francisco, where she had just attended a meeting of the National Human Sexuality Resource Center, on whose board she sits. “The chemistry test at Match—that’s not about chemistry either. If I could concoct a test for chemistry, I’d make a zillion dollars.”

A sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, Schwartz is PerfectMatch.com’s hipper version of Neil Clark Warren: the accessible, empathic, media-savvy love doctor who guides users through the treacherous dating trenches and onto the path of true compatibility.

According to the site­—which calls her by the cutesy moniker “Dr. Pepper”—Schwartz is “the leading relationship expert in the nation,” a woman who “holds the distinction of being the only relationship expert on the Web who’s a published authority, as well as a professor at a major U.S. university.” Oh, and then there are her appearances on Oprah, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, the fourteen books she’s written, and her regular column for LifetimeTV.com.

Unlike Warren, however, she neither founded the company (she was brought in by PerfectMatch’s Duane Dahl), nor follows Warren’s credo of simplicity. In fact, the nifty- sounding Duet Compatibility Profiler takes some complex deconstruction. This makes sense, given that Schwartz has been studying gender relations since the early 1970s, when she was a sociology graduate student at Yale and wrote a Ph.D. thesis on how people hooked up in the college mixer system.

Like Helen Fisher, the Rutgers anthropologist, Schwartz believes that both similarity and complementarity are integral to romantic compatibility. But while Fisher has more of an “it depends” attitude on the question of which of the two makes sense for a particular couple under particular circumstances, Schwartz has a more elaborately defined system, which she outlines in her latest book, Finding Your Perfect Match.

Schwartz’s Duet model consists of a mere forty-eight questions and focuses on eight specific personality characteristics: romantic impulsivity, personal energy, outlook, predictability, flexibility, decision-making style, emotionality, and self-nurturing style. On the first four, she believes, a well-suited couple should be similar; on the last four, however, a couple can thrive on either similarity or difference—provided that both people know themselves well enough to determine which works best.

“My first thought was, Know yourself,” Schwartz said of how she created PerfectMatch’s system. “How can you pick somebody else if you have no insight into yourself?”

Her questionnaire, she believes, will help users to think in a conscious way about who they are. As an example of the kind of introspection she hopes for, Schwartz cites the area of money. “It’s a very important thing,” she said, “and there’s very little research on it, because nobody wants to talk about money. I can ask people if they’re orgasmic, and they’ll tell me in a second. But ask a subject about money, and they’re embarrassed.”

When it comes to money, PerfectMatch asks users to get specific—and honest—about how important it is to them. “I want them to think about things like, Should parents pay for college education no matter what it costs? Do you feel you need to make extravagant purchases every once in a while?” Other tests generally stop at innocuous questions about whether people consider themselves fiscally responsible, but Schwartz ventures into un-PC territory with true-or-false statements like, “All other things being equal, I tend to respect people who make a lot of money more than people who have modest incomes”; “I could not love a person who doesn’t make enough money to help me live the lifestyle I need in order to be happy”; and “I would very much prefer to be with someone who did not have major economic responsibilities to children or parents unless they had a lot of money and these responsibilities did not affect our life together.”

Like Chemistry.com’s system, Duet has its roots in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. But, Schwartz explained, Duet is different from Myers-Briggs in several ways. It has eight characteristics to Myers-Briggs’s four; it uses two personality profiles—similarity and complementarity—instead of one; and it relies on studies from a number of fields, rather than just psychology, to determine how these personality characteristics combine in romantic situations, as opposed to general workplace or team-building ones.

“If, say, I’m rigid in my tastes but I have a sense of humor,” Schwartz explained, “you can work with me. But if I’m rigid and very earnest, it’s going to be difficult. So in our test it’s not just, ‘Is this person rigid?’ Because rigidity can co-exist with humor or earnestness, and which one of those traits is present makes a big difference. It’s important how these traits are put together.”

I took the Duet test and was classified on the similarity scale as X, A, C, and V—that is, Risk Averse, High Energy, Cautious, and Seeks Variety. The site then interpreted the findings, which, to my surprise, rather accurately captured my personality:

You are careful about entering a relationship. You have a cautious side to your personality on more than one dimension, and so it takes you awhile to believe in love and romance with someone you are dating. Nonetheless, you are a high energy, intense kind of person. Once you believe in a relationship, you can be a good partner, IF you give it enough time. You demand a lot from the world and you take on a lot. You probably want someone who does the same, or at least supports your own high energy, explorative approach to life.

Yet the complementarity section of my test results—those traits on which my best match might be similar or different—reflected my temperament on only two of the four parameters. I was characterized as S, C, T, and E—that is, Structured, Compromiser, Temperate, and Extrovert—but I’m neither a C nor a T.

Schwartz wasn’t ruffled by these inaccuracies. “PerfectMatch is the only scientific site out there that’s completely transparent and user-operated,” she said. “If you disagree with me, you can retake the test anytime and get a different profile that more accurately reflects the subtleties we may have missed. Or you can keep the same profile, but in addition to the matches we provide for you, you can do a search on your own. Say I think a passionate person would want another passionate person. But maybe you know about yourself that you’re passionate, but want a calm person, someone who stops the escalation of things. I don’t care if what you think is theoretically sound; if it doesn’t work for you, you can search using your own criteria.”

This, she said, distinguishes PerfectMatch from eHarmony and Chemistry.com. “In the Chemistry test,” said Schwartz, who is a friend of Helen Fisher’s and a fan of her work, “there was a question about where you’d like to live. And I chose the country. And I would—but the people I tend to prefer are in the city. So they sent me people from Bass Breath, Arizona. And there was no way I could change it! At PerfectMatch, we don’t overdetermine people’s answers that way.”

What Schwartz is referring to, of course, is the bugaboo of all these compatibility-matching systems: nuance. “Even if a site lets you choose physical characteristics like height,” she said, “there’s no way it’s going to guess your physical template. It could be lankiness in one case, it could be somebody’s eyes in another. We can’t get that out of a questionnaire. Nobody can. So we say, ‘Go look at the pictures on our site, see who you find attractive, then look at their personality types and see if they’re compatible [with you]. You have that option on PerfectMatch.’ ”

The advantage to scientific matching, she says, isn’t to come up with some foolproof formula for romantic connection. Instead, the science serves as a reality check, as a way of not letting that initial rush of attraction cloud your judgment when it comes to compatibility.

“I went out with a man for about a year who, if I’d taken the test with him—we both would have known we should have stopped early on,” Schwartz said. “But, of course, I was attracted to him, and probably to the characteristics that were wrong for me, for the wrong reasons. That’s what attraction can do. But if you’re also armed with information about compatibility—or lack of compatibility—from the very beginning, you might think twice before getting involved, before you make the mistake of e-mailing the cute guy in the picture, like you might on Match.”

Schwartz, who had been married for twenty-three years before she reentered the dating pool, empathizes with PerfectMatch users. “I know what dating is like,” she said. “I’m doing it, too. You start to burn out, and you need to find a certain amount of positive reinforcement. So if we can cut down the really inappropriate personalities for you, we can help out.”

Of course, before the days of Myers-Briggs and PerfectMatch and academic departments devoted to deconstructing romantic relationships, there were matchmakers. And today, despite the science, they’re still thriving. One of the West Coast’s largest matchmaking agencies is called Debra Winkler Personal Search, and its slogan is the opposite of scientific: “The art of the perfect match.” Indeed, in the FAQ section of the company’s Web site, the reply to “How do you go about matching members?” reads as follows:

Our matchmakers use a combination of tools—including experience and intuition—when matching members. We start with basic demographic information such as age, religion, location, physical requirements and other preferences. Personality profiles are also used but not relied upon exclusively. In the end, however, it comes down to your personal matchmaker.

They hand-select the individuals for you to meet. And it is not based on some absolute, statistical formula. It’s more like a feeling, gained from years of experience, that tells them you and another person would be great for each other.

Winkler founded the company eighteen years ago and sold it in 2003, leaving its day-to-day operations to Annie Ahlin, who worked with Winkler for fourteen years and until November was the company’s president.

“Intuition is a big part of determining long-term compatibility,” Ahlin told me. She said many of the agency’s clients are people who have tried scientific matching online but had no luck. Ahlin believes she knows why. “When you’re reading a profile online, or looking at a photo, it’s one-dimensional,” she explained. “It’s that person’s PR for themselves.” There’s no substitute, she believes, for sitting down with a person one-on-one to get the full picture.

“When we meet our clients, we get a multifaceted impression,” she said. “I may read on your profile that you love cats, but when I ask you about it, I learn that you had a beloved cat when you were three and now you’re allergic to them. Or, I’ll read a personality profile, but when I sit down with this person, I’ll think, Wow, I didn’t know she had this kind of energy. It wasn’t reflected on the page.”

While the Winkler clients fill out personality profiles similar to the ones found online, the difference, Ahlin believes, is the hour-and-a-half interview. Some of these matchmakers have a psychological background, but others are recruited for different reasons. “We go for people who have a heart, are good listeners, are empathetic, and who just have a feel for matching people for the long term,” Ahlin told me. “On resumes, we look for evidence of good people skills—PR, customer service, nursing. It’s not necessarily about an intellectual understanding. People either get it or they don’t.”

Ahlin estimates the agency’s success rate at 70 percent—meaning that 70 percent of clients either end up in a relationship engineered by their matchmakers or get engaged to someone they’ve met through the agency. But unlike the studies being done at eHarmony, there’s no follow-up to determine how long these relationships or marriages last, or how satisfying they are down the line. Besides, Ahlin admitted, other variables may play a role in the high number of pairings. “When you pay eight or ten thousand dollars for a service like ours,” she said, “you seriously want to find someone. It puts the notion ‘I’m really ready’ into your subconscious.”

Ahlin and her matchmakers use feedback forms like those on Chemistry.com to learn how a match went after two clients have met in person. But whereas the Chemistry.com people classify this step as part of their scientific research, Ahlin says simply, “This way, you know what it is that works so you can get closer the next time—it helps us with intuition.”

Often when Ahlin talks about intuition, she describes the same principles that the scientists I spoke with use in their empirically based matching systems. For instance, in matching couples, she follows what is essentially the similarity- complementarity model. “For a match to be successful,” Ahlin said, “a couple’s goals have to be the same, they have to want the same things in life.” But, she added, “that doesn’t mean they should be the same person. On the one hand, it’s good if they have the same experiences, but sometimes having experiences that are different adds energy to the relationship.”

Like Helen Fisher and Pepper Schwartz, Annie Ahlin believes that similarity and complementarity are situational models. “Each person is unique and contradictory,” she told me, “and you can’t just group people into big categories, the way the personality profiles do. So one person who is a Type A may be attracted to Type A in the beginning, but then we send them out and find out they need a Type B. So we adjust along the way. We’re always adjusting. It’s not a scientific process, it’s an intuitive one.”

Gian Gonzaga, the UCLA researcher hired by eHarmony, doesn’t dismiss matchmakers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the basic constructs they’re measuring are the exact same ones [that scientists measure],” he said. “Those who are good at matchmaking are the ones who get that four or five things are really critical.”

I asked Gonzaga what those four or five things are, and he let out a long sigh.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, sheepishly. “It’s funny enough, but I don’t know. A similar sense of values. Other things, like agreeableness or warmth, are probably fairly important in terms of people matching up. You want two people who are relatively similar on wanting to cuddle, or things like that.”

At the word “cuddle,” I raised an eyebrow.

“It’s kind of an unscientific term,” he said, “but … ”

I asked Gonzaga if using science to try to find lasting love might be too lofty a goal—a method that seems promising in theory but that turns out to be no more effective than consulting a matchmaker or cruising at your local bar. He disagreed.

“Imagine being in a bar,” he said, “and how hard it would be to find five people you might connect with. If you actually match those people in the beginning, you’re increasing your odds of meeting someone. Also, some people go to a bar to have a drink, some to meet people. We put people seriously looking for a relationship in one place, at the same time. So I think it’s both the medium and it’s the scale. And a matchmaker only knows so many people, but there are eight million or ten million users on eHarmony.”

Moreover, in the future, science-based dating sites will evolve in ways that mimic real-world situations. Galen Buckwalter, eHarmony’s research-and-development head, said that rather than relying on self-reports to assess how comfortable a person feels in social situations, his group is developing a model that will use computer simulation to immerse people in scenarios—a bar, a party, an intimate dinner—where variables like gender composition can be altered. “How does this person interact differently as the variables change?” Buckwalter asked. “I don’t think we’ll be relying on self-report twenty years from now. I think not only will data collection advance, but so will our analysis. We’re just at the beginning, really.”

Indeed, it may well take a generation before we learn whether the psychological, anthropological, or sociological model works best. Or maybe an entirely different theory will emerge. But at the very least, these dating sites and the relationships they spawn will help us to determine whether science has a place, and if so, how much of a place, in affairs of the heart.

Meanwhile, until these sites start sending me better dating prospects, I figured I’d take Neil Clark Warren up on his offer to introduce me to the thirty-eight-year-old single board member he thought would be such a good match for me. But when I asked a company spokesman about him, I was told that he had recently begun seeing someone. Did they meet through eHarmony? My potential soul mate declined to answer.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Self-examination: prescription for discontent?

link to original piece.

The New Yorker
PURSUING HAPPINESS
by JOHN LANCHESTER
Two scholars explore the fragility of contentment.
Issue of 2006-02-27
Posted 2006-02-20

It is the year 100,000 B.C., and two hunter-gatherers are out hunter-gathering. Let’s call them Ig and Og. Ig comes across a new kind of bush, wit bright-red berries. He is hungry, as most hunter-gatherers are most of the time, and the berries look pretty, so he pops a handful in his mouth. O merely puts some berries in his goatskin bag. A little later, they come to a cave. It looks spooky and Og doesn’t want to go in, but Ig pushes on ahea and has a look around. There’s nothing there except a few bones. On the way home, an unfamiliar rustling in the undergrowth puts Og in a panic, an he freezes, but Ig figures that whatever is rustling probably isn’t any bigger and uglier than he is, so he blunders on, and whatever was doing th rustling scuttles off into the undergrowth. The next morning, Og finally tries the berries, and they do indeed taste O.K. He decides to go back and collect some more.

Now, Ig is clearly a lot more fun than Og. But Og is much more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation of hunter-gatherers. The downside to Ig’s fearlessness is the risk of sudden death. One day, the berries will be poisonous, the bear that lives in the cave will be at home, and the rustling will be a snake or a tiger or some other vertebrate whose bite can turn septic. Ig needs only to make one mistake. From the Darwinian point of view, Og is the man to bet on. He is cautious and prone to anxiety, and these are highly adaptive traits when it comes to survival.

We are the children of Og. For most of the time that anatomically modern humans have existed—a highly contested figure, but let’s call it a million years—it has made good adaptive sense to be fearful, cautious, timid. As Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, puts it in “The Happiness Hypothesis” (Basic; $26), “bad is stronger than good” is an important principle of design by evolution. “Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.” This is a matter of how our brains are wired: most sense data pass through the amygdala, which helps control our fight-or-flight response, before being processed by other parts of our cerebral cortex. The feeling that a fright can make us “jump half out of our skin” is based on this physical reality—we’re reacting long before we know what it is that we’re reacting to.

This is one of the reasons that human beings make heavy weather of being happy. We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize. Hobbes’s description of life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short” is so familiar we can forget that, for most of the people who have ever lived, it was objectively true. Most humans have had little control over their fate; a sniffle, a graze, or a bad piece of meat, let alone a major emergency such as having a baby—all were, for most of our ancestors, potentially lethal. One of the first people to be given penicillin was an Oxford policeman named Albert Alexander, who, in 1940, had scratched himself on a rose thorn and developed septicemia. After he was given the experimental drug, he began to recover, but the supply ran out after five days, and he relapsed and died. That was the world before modern medicine, and it would have been familiar to Ig and Og in a crucial respect: one false move and you were dead.

We can’t be sure, but it seems unlikely that our prehistoric forebears spent much time thinking about whether or not they were happy. As Darri McMahon, a historian at Florida State University, argues in his heavyweight study of the subject, “Happiness: A History” (Atlantic Monthly Press $27.50), the idea of happiness is not a human universal that applies across all times and all cultures but a concept that has demonstrably changed over the years. When your attention is fully concentrated on questions of survival, you don’t have the time or the inclination even to formulate the idea of happiness. You have to begin to feel that you have some control over your circumstances before you begin to ask yourself questions about your own state of mind.

People who have scant control over their lives are bound to place tremendous importance on luck and fate. As McMahon points out, “In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate.” In a sense, the oldest and most deeply rooted philosophical idea in the world and in our natures is “Shit happens.” Happ was the Middle English word for “chance, fortune, what happens in the world,” McMahon writes, “giving us such words as ‘happenstance,’ ‘haphazard,’ ‘hapless,’ and ‘perhaps.’ ” This view of happiness is essentially tragic: it sees life as consisting of the things that happen to you; if more good things than bad happen, you are happy.

“Call no man happy until he is dead” was the Greek way of saying this. It was only when someone had passed beyond the vicissitudes of chance, and reposed honorably in the grave, that one could finally render the verdict. The original challenge to this idea came from classical Athens, the first place where men were free and self-governing, and, not coincidentally, a culture in which a great emphasis was placed on ideas of self-reliance and self-control. Socrates seems to have been the earliest person to think critically about the conditions of happiness, and how one could be happy, and in doing so he caused a shift in the way people thought about the subject. Socrates made the question of happiness one of full accord between an individual and the good: to be happy was to lead a good life, one in keeping with higher patterns of being.

That basic idea gained considerable traction in the next two millennia; in one way or another, the philosophical investigation of happiness from Aristotle to Erasmus and on to Luther was concerned with the alignment of individual conduct and the heavenly order. McMahon explores the broad range of these ideas while pointing out the strong continuities among them. At the time the Beatitudes were written down, with their mysterious promise of blessing for the weak and the poor, “the emphasis is on the promise of future reward”; by the time of Luther, in the sixteenth century, “the experience of happiness on earth . . . was an outward sign of God’s grace.”

The next big turning point in the history of happiness came with the Enlightenment, and its vision of the world as a rational place, which might be governed by laws analogous to the newly discovered Newtonian laws of physics. In the words of the historian Roy Porter, the Enlightenment “translated the ultimate question ‘How can I be saved?’ into the pragmatic ‘How can I be happy?’ ” With this came a new emphasis on the legitimate pursuit of pleasure. In classical and Christian thought, pleasure was seen as, at best, a distraction from the worthwhile pursuit of virtue. The Enlightenment gave pleasure much better press. “If pleasure exists, and we can only enjoy it in life, then life is happiness,” argued Casanova, who was in a position to know.
This is the understanding of happiness with which the modern world begins; it is vividly captured in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which asserts as self-evident a right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To non-Americans, talk of “the pursuit of happiness” can seem an amazing mixture of the simpleminded and the unexpectedly complex. What seems simple is that happiness is so straightforward that we all have a right—a right!—to seek it; what seems complex is the idea that what we’re entitled to is, indeed, a pursuit, something strenuous and not necessarily successful.

Some Marxists have thought that the right to pursue happiness was a last-minute substitution for a previously drafted right to property, but McMahon makes short work of that conspiracy theory. He points out that the Founding Fathers, who queried, crossed out, and haggled over every line of the Declaration, let the “pursuit of Happiness” stand unedited and unamended. But he also points out that the eighteenth-century understanding of “pursuit” was rather darker than it might seem now. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined it as “the act of following with hostile intention,” and McMahon adds that “if one thinks of pursuing happiness as one pursues a fugitive . . . the ‘pursuit of happiness’ takes on a somewhat different cast.”

The legacy of that ambiguity is with us still. We are pursuing happiness to this day, and it is by no means clear that it is a happy process. The self-help section in any bookshop is easy to mock—indeed, it sometimes seems that the titles of self-help books are almost mocking themselves—but there is nothing to mock about the people standing in front of the shelves looking for guidance. In fact, the advice in self-help books is, by and large, pretty good. The trouble is that it is very difficult to take.

Why is this so? For the first time in human history, it’s possible to give tentative answers that are based on a scientific account of mental processes. In addition to the old psych-lab tests, researchers now have access to technology such as MRI and PET scanners. These can report where brain activity takes place, and can begin to answer questions about why our minds work in the way that they do. One example has to do with emotion, which is regulated in part by the frontal cortex of the brain, the last part to expand as mammals evolved. The orbitofrontal cortex, just above and behind the eyes, is “one of the most consistently active areas of the brain during emotional reactions,” Jonathan Haidt tells us. “The neurons in this part of the cortex fire wildly when there is an immediate possibility of pleasure or pain, loss or gain.” People who suffer damage to the frontal cortex can lose most of their ability to experience emotion while retaining their ability to think rationally. But they don’t therefore see the world with crystalline logic, so that life suddenly becomes simple. On the contrary, Haidt reports: “They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, ‘What should I do now?’ they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other.”

Philosophers have expounded on happiness for a long time, but only relatively recently have psychologists taken much of an interest. The study of “positive psychology,” as it is called, was launched by Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, in the late nineteen-nineties, and began with the realization that the study of psychiatry had a huge bias toward every form of illness. “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” the basic reference work of the psychiatric profession, was (and is) a chronicle of everything that could possibly go wrong with the human mind, from psychosis to schizoaffective disorder to mania—a harrowing catalogue. But where was the study of the mind when it was working satisfactorily? Where was the study of a healthy emotional life and successful adaptation to circumstances? In short, what had psychology to say about happiness? Haidt is a member of the positive-psychology school, and his book, which has in its packaging some of the trappings of self-help, is much more intelligent than it looks from the outside. One of the key questions—going straight to the heart of the Enlightenment ambition for us to be happy here and now, in this life—is whether happiness is a default setting of the brain. That is to say, are we, left to our own devices, and provided with sufficient food and freedom and control over our circumstances, naturally happy?

The answer proposed by positive psychology seems to be: It depends. The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,” puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren’t any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a “hedonic treadmill”: their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.

According to positive psychologists, once we’re out of poverty the most important determinant of happiness is our “set point,” a natural level of happiness that is (and this is one of the movement’s most controversial claims) largely inherited. We adapt to our circumstances; we don’t, or can’t, adapt our genes. The evidence for this set point, and the phrase itself, came from a study of identical twins by the behavioral geneticist David Lykken, which concluded that “trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.” Contrary to everything you might think, “in the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you,” Haidt writes. Consider the opposing examples of winning the lottery or of losing the use of your limbs. According to Haidt, “It’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you’d think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

Can that possibly be true? Here we run into one of the biggest problems with the study of happiness, which is that it relies heavily on what people tell us about themselves. The paraplegics in these studies may well report regaining their previous levels of happiness, but how can we know whether these levels really are the same? You can compare relative happiness in the course of a given day, though that’s not at all the same thing. Layard cites a study, by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, reporting that people’s top four favorite parts of the day feature sex, socializing after work, dinner, and relaxing. Their bottom four involve commuting, work, child care, and housework. But our absolute level of happiness is more elusive. Happiness “is something essentially subjective,” Freud wrote. “No matter how much we may shrink with horror from certain situations—of a galley-slave in antiquity, of a peasant during the Thirty Years’ War, of a victim of the Holy Inquisition, of a Jew awaiting a pogrom—it is nevertheless impossible for us to feel our way into such people. . . . It seems to me unprofitable to pursue this aspect of the problem any further.”

That isn’t, of course, the view taken by positive psychologists. Then again, the news that we’re on a hedonic treadmill, so that we end up where we’re always bound to end up, is so contrary to our fundamental appetites for exertion and the next new thing, that nobody can really accept it. So Lykken himself, the fellow who came up with the finding about the set point, went on to write a book about how to become happier. (It contained his favorite recipe for Key-lime pie.) Positive psychology has even devised a formula for how to be happy, where H is your level of happiness, S is your set point, C is the conditions of your life, and V is the voluntary activities you do. Ready for the secret of happiness? Here it is:

H=S+C+V

In other words, your happiness consists of how happy you naturally are, plus whatever is going on in your life to affect your happiness, plus a bit of voluntary work. Well, duh. The only vaguely surprising thing about this is how useful voluntary work can be to the person doing it—and even that isn’t really news. At the end of the nineteenth century, Emile Durkheim performed a huge cross-cultural study of suicide, and found, in Haidt’s words, that “no matter how he parsed the data, people who had fewer social constraints, bonds and obligations were more likely to kill themselves.” The more connected we are to other people, the less likely we are to succumb to despair—a conclusion that isn’t very distant from the common-sense proposition that lonely people are often unhappy, and unhappy people are often lonely.

The psychological study of happiness might seem to be something of a bust. Mainly it tells us things that people have known for a long time, except with scientific footnotes. In the end, the philosophy and the science converge on the fact that thinking about your own happiness does not make it any easier to be happy. A co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, made people carry a pager, and told them that every time it went off they should write down what they were doing and how much they were enjoying it. The idea was to avoid the memory’s tendency to focus on peaks and troughs, and to capture the texture of people’s lives as they were experiencing them, rather than in retrospect. The study showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”—in Haidt’s definition, “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James’s, as “a by-product of absorption.”

The trouble is that asking yourself about your frame of mind is a sure way to lose your flow. If you want to be happy, don’t ever ask yourself if you are. A person in good health in a Western liberal democracy is, in terms of his objective circumstances, one of the most fortunate human beings ever to have walked the surface of the earth. Risk-taking Ig and worried Og both would have regarded our easy, long, riskless lives with incredulous envy. They would have regarded us as so lucky that questions about our state of mind wouldn’t be worth asking. It is a perverse consequence of our fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

as we enter the age of information, a look back at the age of privacy

Some random thoughts....

If we are supposedly entering the information age, what is the age we are leaving behind? I'd argue that we are exiting the age of privacy.

I'd like to use the word privacy in the broadest sense: "lack of information", "secrets", "mystery"...anything that connotes absence of signal". In other words, people can lose their privacy but so can a bird, a rock, a mathematical riddle, or a meme.

Clearly the information age creates value, but are we thinking enough about what is being lost? No doubt transparency breeds honesty and accountability and a lot of good things. Let's think about it from a tribal perspective and nature's perspective.

In nature, life is about the pursuit of information about the environment, conspecifics, prey, predators, while simultaneously minimizing revealing information about oneself to others. The former enhances fitness by enabling good decisions while the latter may reduce fitness by creating asymmetric advantage to others. It's about signals, illegitimate signals, communication, and miscommunication. However, it's also about trust.

There are cases where revealing oneself judiciously is critical: to family, to offspring, to potential mates, and lastly, to potential allies. It is in this last situation where trust is vital. To relatives, kin altruism fosters mutual sharing of vital information. To allies, however, reciprocal altruism (conditional trust) is what builds value. Most organisms extend this trust carefully, which means revealing signals about oneself is a judicious manner as such trust is reciprocated.

Thus, people who seek privacy are not anti-informationists. They simply want to reveal information to only those they trust and vice versa. What they lament about the information age is that information is getting revealed and exploited asymmetrically. Take phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. In the old world, people used to love hearing the phone ring because it was almost always a friend or a family on the other side. Same with getting mail, which was a revered ritual for many (walking to the mail box, driving to the post office) and an activity filled with hope. Now people have caller IDs to screen calls and have trashcans set up next to the mail box? Why? "information" has enabled strangers to access aspects of ourselves that exploit pre-existing communication channels that served the tribal era, but are now exposed to asymmetric gains.

When it comes to letters, people send them because they believe it's information that others want to receive. That explains the x-mas form letter. In reality, what people crave is the personal connection, commitment, effort, endeavor for others. The hand-written letter has become the highest method of honoring others, and it's value as a social asset is now the highest it's ever been.