Aimee is excited. She met Colin online, through a popular dating site. In a sea of creepy men “poking” her profile and looking for easy hookups and sex, Colin seems funny, smart and a perfect gentleman. He also gets bonus points for his job as an owner of a farm-to-table restaurant, which marks him as a sophisticated, dynamic go-getter. And from his online profile, he has gorgeous green eyes — her favorite.
They exchange e-mails, and then numbers, and after a warm, friendly, endearingly-nervous conversation on the phone, they agree to meet the next weekend for a real live first date. Dinner, and then a concert. So far, so good.
But then, two days before D-Day, Aimee calls up her best friend Jennifer. “I can’t do this,” she says.
“Don’t worry, Aimee,” Jennifer counsels. “Just go out there and have a good time.”
Jennifer thinks Aimee just has cold feet. Aimee was in a lengthy relationship for much of her 20s, as she worked her way up to become executive director for a non-profit organization that helps the homeless get back on their feet. Now in her early 30s, Aimee is new to the Dating 2.0 game, and often feels a flurry of anxiety when confronted with the new rituals of romance.
“No, it’s not that,” Aimee says. “I just found out something horrible about him on the Internet.”
Uh-oh, Jennifer thinks. What could it be? Did Colin pop up on one of those sex-offender databases? Did he have a predilection for S&M? Did pictures of him cross-dressing appear when he was Googled? “What is it?” Jennifer asks, thinking the worst.
Aimee takes a deep breath and lets loose the shameful secret. “He’s a Republican,” she wails.
Her romance with Colin seems over before it even begins, derailed by an innocuous, commonplace habit. By Googling him, she indulged in what some dating experts call “pre-dating,” and while it’s a perfectly natural impulse, it may actually kill Cupid before he has a chance to shoot his famous arrows.
Dating and courtship are changing as our lifestyles grow increasingly mobile. Texting has sped up our communication, making everything faster, more instantaneous, and often more confusing. Apps and social media put us in touch with more people than previously possible, and thanks to search engines, we can go into any potentially romantic situation armed with more information than ever.
Compared to the sometimes creepy dating apps, and the confusion of communication, Googling someone before a first date seems the most innocuous of these changes. After all, search engines have been around for as long as the Internet, well before the word “app” became commonplace. We Google everything: places to eat, things to buy, jobs to apply for, friends to make.
Aimee finds a lot of things she likes about Colin on the Internet. Judging from his Spotify playlists, they have the same taste in bands and movies, which gets her excited about the concert they are going to. He has a blog about his business, and she admires the wit and intelligence in his writing. From his Instagram, she can tell he is well-traveled with a lot of friends and family. Everything she has been able to unearth only seems to increase her growing crush on him.
But when she stumbles upon some random “likes” on his Facebook, of organizations that goes against her own values, red flags begin to appear. Are she and Colin too different to make him a good long-term match?
“What’s the use of going out with him when, deep down, we have such different values?” Aimee asks.
Aimee thinks she’s doing the logical thing by finding out as much about Colin as possible. While she quells her pre-date anxieties by gathering points of compatibility they can bond over, she’s also creating a picture of him that may or may not have any basis. But by doing so, she bypasses an important part of the process in building a romance, and creates a relationship based on potentially wrong assumptions, before a real one actually exists.
“You’re trying to suss out: Will this person and I have a connection? Actually, there is no evidence that we can assess that online,” Eli Finkel, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, told Glamour. “You think you know what you want, but what you really need is to sit across from each other and get a beer.”
According to Nicole Ellison, a professor at University of Michigan who studies online dating, Googling someone before a first date makes it easier to write them off based on criteria that may not be that important in the bigger picture. She told Glamour it encourages us to treat dating more like online shopping — much like how we look at a sweater, and think “too short,” “too drab” or “too slouchy,” and then click next.
Too short? A smoker? Bad taste in music? Too many emoticons? Next. They’re become a product, and the “interaction” with them is reduced to a business transaction.
Learning too much also makes us judge them more harshly. According to an MIT study, cited in the book, “Undecided,” when we investigate a date online, we speed up our disillusionment, and give them little time to explain or elaborate on something that offends us. They don’t get a chance to set the record straight.
What’s wrong with that?
Cut-and-dry thinking interferes with our natural process of building chemistry. Aimee might be attracted to Colin’s looks and his interest in indie bands and left-field offbeat comedians, but she also needs to feel out less tangible aspects of him to judge if the attraction is genuine. She needs to find out whether he looks her in the eye when they talk, if she likes his tone of voice, or if she’s attracted to how he carries himself.
This kind of in-person interaction gives its own treasure trove of information, and helps us figure out someone’s intentions and character. Gazing into the eyes, after all, plays an important role in the biochemistry of love by triggering the release of oxytocin, a hormone that lowers anxiety and increases our ability to get close. Researchers have discovered that a hefty dose of oxytocin, often called the “bonding” hormone, makes us more empathetic, supportive and open with our emotions — all qualities that go a long way in promoting relationships.
Our bodies release oxytocin when we touch one another, intimately with hugs or kisses, or even with casual gestures, such as patting the back or shoulder, or nurturing behavior like grooming. The chemical is even released during revealing conversations with deep listening and open sharing. When women go out for lunch, indulge in a gabfest, and then go for a pedicure, for example, they’re not just enjoying one another’s company — they’re replenishing their stores of oxytocin.
While oxytocin plays a role in bonding, researchers discovered that an increase in the chemical was highest during the period of falling in love, according to Ruth Feldman, a psychology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. New lovers have double the amount of oxytocin of single people, Feldman reported, even exceeding levels found in pregnant women, who already course with the hormone. She also found that couples with the highest levels were more likely to stay together six months later. High-oxytocin couples, it turns out, more often laughed together and touched each other.
Oxytocin is so powerful that some scientists have proposed giving doses of the chemical during couples therapy to ease the communication process. Oxytocin can’t create bonds — a connection must exist beyond the biochemical — but it might ease the work of forging a relationship.
Researchers aren’t certain if oxytocin is the cause, or is the result, of us acting in a more loving way. It’s a biochemical “chicken or egg” question, but Feldman believes that the types of bonding that release oxytocin create a positive feedback loop. “Oxytocin can elicit loving behaviors, but giving and receiving these behaviors also promotes the release of oxytocin and leads to more of these behaviors,” she told Scientific American.
The chemical also helps us bypass our penchant for overly critical thinking. Being in its fog helps us overlook faults and red flags, making us more willing to date and mate outside our preconceived notions. A high-powered businesswoman might not normally consider a working-class carpenter, for example, but oxytocin can help her see the other ways he can make a great partner: how he makes her laugh, feel secure, or comfortable to be herself.
But oxytocin is strictly analog, so we bypass it when we get to know someone “informationally” through the Internet, instead of “conversationally” during face-to-face conversations. By making a quick — though perhaps accurate — judgment about Colin and his values and politics, Aimee short-circuited any possibility of attraction. He may have been a Republican, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t the kind, respectful, trust-worthy, funny and smart — the type of person Aimee wants.
Her friends try to reason with her. Aimee hasn’t been excited to meet someone in ages, so nobody wants her to give up so easily. She’s chickened out of promising dates before, sabotaging her love life with excessive doubt, insecurity and anxiety. Is this another case of her getting cold feet, rejecting someone before they can reject her? She says she’s willing to grow beyond her fears and limitations in search for love — to try anything new — but her behavior says otherwise.
But when best friend Jennifer points this out, Aimee doesn’t see it this way. She thinks she’s merely being smart.
“But you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” Jennifer says. After all, someone’s online personae doesn’t often show who they are in real-life. She didn’t uncover his police record, or anything criminal. What’s the harm to go out with him once, and asking him what he really believes in and why? That way, she can look into his green eyes and judge his intentions, listen to his voice and hear his convictions, and let the oxytocin work its magic. Then, maybe she’ll discover his personality outweighs a couple of Facebook likes on his profile.
Aimee considers this for a moment. “Okay,” she says, with a heavy note of caution, indicating Colin will have an uphill battle.
When Aimee Googled her dates, she began to view them in a more critical light, short-circuiting the natural attraction, and sabotaging any chance of a romance. And yet she can’t stop doing it. I took an informal poll of single friends on Twitter and Facebook, and nearly everyone admitted to Googling a date before they ever met. Sentiments ranged from, “I don’t have time to get to know every single person I meet on online dating sites,” to, “You can’t trust anyone these days.” These are all logical reasons, but how can love bloom when we’re more concerned with efficiency and convenience, or when we’re inherently mistrustful of everyone we meet?
Besides, Googling before a date can sometimes lose an essential quality to falling in love: the idea that we’re discovering someone for the first time, whether it’s the weird things that make them laugh, an endearingly-dorky use of emoticons, or how they bring us tea and soup when we’re sick in bed. Somehow that unfolding sense of revelation and discovery just doesn’t unfurl the same way when we’ve already built up a picture of them in the mind, and any new data becomes evidence for or against it.
Great American novelist Edith Wharton hit upon this essential quality of romance in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Age of Innocence,” about two soul mates — society stalwart Newland Archer and the mysterious, exotic Countess Ellen Olenska — who can’t be together because of the conservative conventions of mid-19th century New York society.
After a separation, they finally meet surreptitiously, and Newland is captivated again by Ellen’s intelligence and strange blend of melancholy and wisdom. “Each time you happen to me all over again,” he tells her, trying to explain the way she makes him feel.
In a way, this idea of “happening” to one another again and again is perhaps the spark that pushes us to continue with love, no matter how “illogical” or frustrating it is. And this kind of deep intimacy is key to a relationship that constantly “keeps itself fresh” — where two people have the privilege of observing the other’s evolution as a human being up close and personal.
But judging someone based on digital results often kills that magic before a relationship can begin. What is there to “discover” when we think we already know a lot about them?
With a lot of cajoling and goading, Aimee eventually did go on that date with Colin. She wasn’t as excited as she would’ve been, but she had a good time — a good enough time, she says, for a second date.
What about the matter of his pro-Republican Facebook likes? She hasn’t asked him about it yet, she says. It turns out, he hasn’t been on Facebook in years, mostly because he felt forced to “like” pages that his friends suggest to him all the time. He thinks about deleting his profile altogether, in fact — something Aimee heartily agrees with on the date, laughing at the ridiculousness of the Internet as she looks into his alluring green eyes. ♦