"If you're gonna make scientific claims, act like a scientist. Or don't make scientific claims," UCLA social psychology professor Benjamin Karney says, leaning forward in his chair in his office at UCLA's Franz Hall, his voice rising an octave. "Don't pretend!"
"It just so happens that they tread on your turf! And it pisses you off," Karney's longtime collaborator and colleague, clinical psychology professor Thomas Bradbury responds, laughing. "I get that!"
On Feb. 17, Karney and four co-authors published "Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science," a secondary study that looks at established relationship science to critique dating websites that claim to have a scientific basis for matching singles, including eHarmony, Chemistry (whose methods are "almost crazy," according to Bradbury) and PerfectMatch and GenePartner (whose methods are "basically adorable," according to Karney).
But Bradbury didn't contribute to Karney's latest project, because, oddly enough, Bradbury works for Santa Monica-based eHarmony as a consultant on the company's Scientific Advisory Panel, a source of some tension and debate between the friends.
Bradbury, naturally, tells Karney he doesn't agree with his contention that eHarmony's pseudoscience is harming people.
"You do know that the American public has gotten hoodwinked since there was a product to be sold," Bradbury says. "The risks associated with the badness of these instruments and these devices in these sites have no long-term cost; it's just money out of someone's pocket. People are getting duped, but it's not a life-or-death situation."
UP NEXT: Why the FTC should "subject the claims of online dating sites to the same degree of scrutiny as is applied to other advertised claims that are relevant to public well-being."
Karney and his co-authors beg to differ. Commissioned by the editorial board of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, "Online Dating: A Critical Analysis" boldly asserts the Federal Trade Commission and other "regulatory agencies have ... adopted a laissez-faire attitude" and should "subject the claims of online dating sites to the same degree of scrutiny as is applied to other advertised claims that are relevant to public well-being."
For the most part, the new study determines that online dating is a benefit to society, because the sites allow customers access to more potential matches than they would meet otherwise, and screen out undesirables who have substance-abuse problems, mental illness or serious depression.
However, sites like eHarmony promise more than a better and bigger dating pool.
"They say, 'We will find your soulmate for you.' That's a pretty drastic claim," Karney says. "As opposed to what they're really doing, which is, 'We've screened out the freaks.' That could be their tagline -- eHarmony: No freaks here."
But that's not their tagline. Instead, eHarmony claims its methods are "scientifically proven to predict happier, healthier long-term relationships." Proven, Karney wonders, by whom?
Though he received a Ph.D. in psychology from University of Chicago in 1967, eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren admitted in a 2006 article in the Atlantic, "I hated doing research."
No big surprise there, as Warren has not published scholarly articles or studies on marriage, dating or relationships, though he has a few self-help books. The "35 years of clinical experience and rigorous relationship research" advertised by eHarmony seem, then, to amount to nothing more than Warren's untested observations working with couples in therapy and a study (mentioned in the Atlantic article) comparing 800 marriages ... the results of which have never been published, vetted or replicated. (eHarmony refused to comment for this story, but their spokeswoman dutifully tried to reiterate that their "matching system is based on years of empirical and clinical research on married couples.")
Stuart Friedel, a partner who represents numerous advertising agencies for the law firm Davis & Gilbert, says there is no legal requirement that studies proving that a product works be peer-reviewed, but he agreed that Karney and his co-authors are "experts in the relevant field" and can therefore speak with authority about whether eHarmony, for example, fulfills the FTC's requirement for "competent and reliable scientific evidence."
UP NEXT: Poking holes in the eHarmony algorithm.
The biggest problem with Warren's algorithm is that it seems to be based on conclusions drawn from already married couples: He says that similar people are more likely to form happy, long-term relationships. But Karney points out that successful couples tend to perceive themselves as similar, regardless of whether they would have done so as unacquainted strangers. "If I like you, I'll find a way to be similar," he says. So perceived similarities are a consequence, not a cause, of strong relationships.
Perhaps to head off scrutiny once eHarmony grew to millions of members, Warren established a research facility in 2007. The senior director of research & development at eHarmony Labs, Gian Gonzaga, is also an adjunct professor at UCLA, where Bradbury served as his post-doc supervisor.
For eHarmony, affiliation with Gonzaga and Bradbury appears to be PR gold that creates the impression that the site's matching methods are based on hard science. The eHarmony Labs website claims Bradbury and other advisers "work collaboratively with us to develop eHarmony products... emphasiz[ing] eHarmony Lab's commitment to ... providing research-driven products." But according to Bradbury, his advice has no influence on eHarmony's actual product: the matching algorithm developed by Warren in the late 1990s.
The question remains whether the legitimate research Gonzaga has been churning out will be used for anything more than publicity.
"Tom and I could easily design a study," Karney says, "and eHarmony has the resources ... that would prove, 'Look, when we put [users] through our algorithm, they do better than when you put them through another algorithm or a control condition.'"
"This is one of the studies that I told them to do," Bradbury says. "Five years ago."
"That's a nightm--" Karney starts to say, trying to shape his look of disbelief into a smile. "See, that's why I'm delighted that he's on the board. I'm sure that he's only told them smart things. You know, he's a smart guy," he stage-whispers.
With Bradbury on eHarmony's payroll but incapable of directly influencing the "science" behind its product, Karney is left to fight openly for scientific integrity and take down eHarmony.
Except that's not what he wants.
"Has your group gone to a regulatory agency and said, 'We are outraged at the misuse of our science?'" Bradbury asks.
"First of all, outrage is a little strong. I didn't say I was outraged," Karney says.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The conclusion section of the new study advocates "closer collaboration between scholars and service providers" and seems to be demanding not increased regulation but a piece of the action. The section lauds cooperation between academics and matchmakers as "an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to test their theories and develop new ones with large samples of participants," which translates into an offer of help with the heavy science lifting in exchange for access to the 21st century's most valuable currency: information, specifically the gold mine of user data collected by dating sites.
"Why spend all this time and energy if you don't want to change things?" Bradbury asks, prodding his critical colleague.
"I think it matters, I agree," Karney says with a sheepish smile. "We haven't gone to a regulatory agency, only because I've been a little busy this week."