Have you ever sat and watched people on a busy street? This sort of practice is essential to the amateur sociologist. Human beings are an infinitely interesting lot. Desmond Morris, the prominent anthropologist, wrote a book called The Naked Ape in which he described human behaviour in anthropological terms. The clarity with which he did this is semi-legendary, and if you read the book you’ll see that a lot of our ingrained behaviour is directly relatable to that of lower primates.
I’ll come back to this in a second, because people watching was my first port of call. When you sit and watch a large group of people, you become aware not of differences but of overt similarities. It’s been said before that the individual man and woman is an insoluble puzzle, but when viewed in the aggregate become predictable. Crowd dynamics takes hold, and people behave in a similar, social sense. The reason for this is that people, by and large, are identical. Seen from far enough away, the individual dissolves into a blob of colour moving this way and that, performing actions barely distinguishable from those of the billions of other people already here.
This leads me neatly onto behaviourism versus cognitivism, which is a long and drawn-out argument we’ve been having for the last couple of centuries. The first school holds that behaviour is all that matters to psychology; since the interior world is unknowable, it should not factor into analysis. To analyse the person, we only have to look at their behaviour. The second school holds that, while our behaviours may be largely similar, the interior worlds we inhabit are complex, mysterious, and scientifically interesting. Our behaviours are a product of our cognition; the way we are programmed, the way we were brought up, and our self-direction. The Nature, Nurture or Nietzsche argument, if you will.
Neither holds a decisive grip on the imagination. We can see human beings as a distinct animal, as Desmond Morris did, and relate much of our behaviour to primate social dynamics. This is straightforward: human beings groom, express territoriality, form bonds, and hoard their resources much as our nearest relative the Gorilla does. Yet this hardly shows the whole picture, because people have radically different psychologies.
Which brings me, inevitably, to online dating. Even five years ago online dating was the preserve of people who were too niche, louche or agoraphobic to go out and meet people the way previous generations had. It was regarded as a slightly nebbish, unusual practice, just as ordering a pizza online was. Nerds dated online, we knew that, sharing fanfiction and pictures of their Warhammer 40,000 statues, and anybody who wanted to have sex with a stranger (and flirt with the possibility of being drugged/raped/sold into slavery/organ harvested) could go to the Classifieds on Craigslist. But over time the attitude has changed: online dating has become a big business. It makes money. It makes money from regular people. Social change happens like that: apparently overnight. People flock to the internet to meet people, share stories, arrange dates and even meet the love of their life.
There’s only one problem with this, and it relates directly back to the old behaviourism vs cognitivism:
Online dating is stupid.
I was reading Douglas Coupland’s Player One, which is a story about a group of people trapped in an airport during a terrorist attack. Coupland, famous for writing JPod and Microserfs, has a pretty tenuous and sketchy appreciation of human dynamics; that is to say, his characters are pretty one-dimensional. One aspect of Player One that seemed well-developed, however, was the story of Karen, who travels from Winnipeg to Toronto to meet a man she fell in love with online. “Fell in love with” is the operative phrase here, because Karen believes that her date is her soul-mate. When he appears, however, she is crushed: he is too dominant, not smart enough, and pretty rude; in short, the opposite of the man she thought he was. The date ends badly (he gets shot in the head).
This made me think a lot about human dynamics, and as a direct consequence I signed up to the “free” OKCupid, partly out of mawkish curiosity, partly due to the fact that my dating history is extremely checkered (my relationships tend to run shorter than the lifespan of a cancelled sitcom, for which I accept full responsibility). Online dating may be more acceptable these days, but to me still smacks of a dangerous and untested mechanism of social progress.
In the two weeks I’ve been running this experiment I haven’t had any success (so I’m hoping the following doesn’t sound tinged with bitterness). But I do have some conclusions which relate directly back to the behaviourism versus cognitivism argument. This argument devolves into a simple problem: who we are versus who we appear to be. It’s a story as old as the world itself, best summarised by a joke I shamelessly stole from Alan Moore’s Watchmen:
“I heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed, life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town. Go see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears.”But doctor” He says, “I am Pagliacci.””
Dating in the real world is a complex phenomenon, one redolent of human expectations and primate sensibilities. The first thing that attracts us to potential mates, so biologists say, is their smell, because pheromones contain information on genetic compatibility. Then we are attracted to their physical attributes: height, face, build, and health. The third element is signs of apparent success: clothing has replaced the plumage our avian brethren rely on as a success signal. Then, once these are dispensed with, we are attracted to their behaviour: their external manifestation of their hidden personality. Then, after a much longer interlude, we become conscious of their personality. These are the classical elements of attraction, and humans have been relying on them to get gene A into slot B for a hundred thousand years.
Online dating skips right over the first two (who hasn’t been fooled by a flattering photo?) and misses out the fourth all together. The third element: behaviour, is all that’s presented by someone’s dating profile, and even then by way of a keyboard.
The problem is that behaviour, as evinced by the experience Player One‘s Karen, is a shoddy indicator of personality, or compatibility, or anything at all. Behaviour is, among humans, the lie we tell the world to avoid telling the hidden truth. The first thing they always say about serial killers or people who keep girls in the basement is always: “well, he seemed like a regular guy”. Behaviour is often bullshit.
Here are a few examples, culled from the slightly-creepy “experiment” I’ve been running. These examples are, I admit, notoriously incomplete, because they’re derived from the “matches” OKCupid offered me after I answered some ambiguous questions. I should also point out that OKCupid would only show me the female profiles: I have no idea what the trends are in male profiles but I bet they’re absolutely disgusting.
Translation: I didn’t read the title. You can’t not admit the most private thing you’re willing to admit because you won’t admit to it. Jesus, I even give myself a headache sometimes.
Translation: I don’t want to describe myself because I either can’t or don’t like what I’m about to say.
Translation: I’m either being coy, or I’m not good at anything, or the things I’m good at aren’t likely to be attractive.
Response: If I had to ask other people what the first thing was they noticed about you I’d have to already know you, confirm that they know you, and ask them, which would require adjectives that would negate the need to do so.
Translation: the most private thing I’m willing to admit is that I have strident political, social and ethical views which I won’t hesitate to offer whenever you eat a turkey burger.
I’m being unfair and I know it. All of these people are probably lovely, deep, spiritual beings who deserve somebody equally nice to spend their days with. The problem here is behaviourism: the external manifestation of interior processes. Whenever people make themselves known to us, they do so with an exterior that acts as a sort of armour, protecting their deeper selves from casual examination. In the real world, it’s easy to get a glimpse of this inner personality: when somebody gives themselves away with body language, or an accidental giggle, or a Freudian slip. There are many cues we use in reality to gauge personality. On the internet, everything boils down to what we type: in short, exactly what we want to project. We develop a fiction of ourselves. The cognition that drives our personalities is forever out of reach.
The examples I’ve given above are pretty common: indeed, just as common as the naming of their favourite book as “Harry Potter” (Which one? And for god’s sake, out of all the literature there’s ever been, you pick Harry Potter?) and the strident, matronly but understandable “You should message me if you’re not going to say Olrite Babez fanC a shag?“. Once again we return to the idea that aggregated human behaviour betrays homogenization.
Which is the crux of the matter: after half an hours browsing (I prefer “browsing” to “creeping”, “stalking” or “being a weirdo”), every profile starts to look the same. In fact they sort of are. Everybody’s a bit geeky but not too much, quiet and shy until you get to know them, everybody’s always thinking about the future and nobody likes describing themselves. Where have I heard this before? Oh. Bland, uninformative personality questionnaires that psychology departments used to rely on for random sampling.
There is another problem: as Oscar Wilde wrote, “Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our gigantic intellects.”
The things that attract us to other people are apt to be things they themselves are unaware of. The way they laugh. That strange noise they make when they’re eating pasta. The fact their shoelaces are always untied. They have no idea, the beloved, of what makes them special, and if they were to write the sorts of summaries that online dating is built upon, they would miss these things out completely. Online dating persists, indeed, thrives, thanks to a fragmentary and illusory idea of what a person is. In short, OKCupid and others like it are built upon a behaviourist picture of relationships, as are the relationships which it may nurture. I no longer have an OKCupid profile. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be in a behaviourist relationship. The next sneeze could be your last.