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Is Meeting Over Social Media Better Than Meeting in Real Life?

Today, finding love is more convenient. Instead of going to a bar or a blind date set up by friends, we can swipe left or right on a multitude of dating apps from the comfort of our own couch. But is meeting over social media better than meeting in real life? Do we get to know people we may have otherwise written off? Or do we lose all romance being stuck behind a screen? John Bargh, author of BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, shares his answers to these questions.

Over social media we can develop relationships with people we might not have given a moment’s notice to in real life. Over social media, those people can get by the “gating features,” as we called them, such as attraction or the chronic features of their face, that we use to screen people in real-life, face-to-face encounters. These initial filters allow certain people past the gates but they block many others. Many potentially great romantic relationships don’t get off the ground because of the importance we place on those gating features, mainly a person’s physical attractiveness or general appearance. We should all keep in mind Nietzsche’s advice to marry someone you can have conversations with, for most of your life together will be after the blush is off the rose.

Because many forms of social media (not all) enable us to bypass those gating features, then people who do not meet face-to-face, but instead through social media such as Internet discussion groups, email, blog sites, or chat rooms, might actually have just as stable and long-lasting relationships as those who meet in “real life.” Back in the 1990s, there was a pungent stigma attached to meeting on the Internet and the common wisdom was that few of these relationships would survive a couple’s first face-to-face encounter. But since then there has been a veritable explosion in online dating, and a recent national survey of nearly twenty thousand people who married between 2005 and 2012 found that fully 35 percent had first met online. About half of these people had met through online dating sites such as eHarmony and Match, the rest through their social networks (Facebook, Twitter), multiplayer game sites, chat rooms, or other online communities. …

Don’t get me wrong: attractiveness is important. It is a real feature of the person. As we’ve seen, attractive faces are a literal pleasure to look at; our brain’s reward centers become active when we look at them. And, as we’ve seen, even babies prefer to look at attractive faces! It is just human nature to prefer attractive to unattractive people when it comes to close relationships. The problem comes when we use that attractiveness to make inaccurate assumptions about other qualities of the person. We tend to believe that what is beautiful is good and assume other good things, such as pleasant personality, competence, trustworthiness, when we see an attractive face. We have way too much confidence in these gut reactions based just on appearances. So that gives us [a rule]: It is perfectly fine for attraction be one part of the romantic equation, but not so fine to let it be the only, or even the main, thing. Not in the long run, anyway.

Our gut reactions served us well for many thousands, perhaps millions of years. If they had been misleading or counterproductive they would have been weeded out by natural selection. But our modern life is very different from what life was like over those thousands and millions of years. People of different races, who are different from our family and neighbors, are no longer enemies who can’t be trusted. Modern technologies such as photographs of faces can fool our gut appraisal mechanisms that were developed instead for observing people in action, in the context of how they treat us and the others around us. Our gut reactions can be quite sophisticated at combining lots of information, and should be taken seriously, but here too we need to adjust for the conditions of modern life and make use of reliable data, if we have it, and the powerful ways of analyzing it now available, especially for important choices and decisions.

Today even experts disagree on whether intuitions are accurate, and whether we can trust our gut. Those who say we can’t tend to study complex financial and business decisions, made with little or no time pressure, and based on reliable data, with powerful computers and software to analyze it. Those who say we can trust our instincts tend to be psychologists or evolutionary scientists, who study the mundane realities of daily life, where often we are under time pressure to make decisions and lack any relevant quantitative measures. So then, certainly, listen to what your gut, or heart, or other internal organ (including your brain) is telling you, take it seriously and don’t dismiss it out of hand, but also check your work, and always remember to give the other person a chance.

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Need more relationship advice? Here are the top dating dos and don’ts.

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Excerpted from Before You Know It by John Bargh. Copyright © 2017 by Simon & Schuster. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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