Big (Love) Data: Q+A with Love Expert Dr. Helen Fisher
Biological anthropologist and love expert Dr. Helen Fisher remembers the first time someone from a dating site called her.
It was in 2005, “a couple of days before Christmas,” she recalls. The memory is a fond one because it was the beginning of her best relationship—albeit a business one. The website wanted to hire Fisher to help them understand the new world of dating online—and how it might change the way people find love.
Over a decade after the site officially hired her, Fisher’s findings have culminated in an annual survey, eight years running, of singles across America. With the help of the internet, she’s effectively led one of the largest studies of singles in the country—over 14 million people have taken her love questionnaire. And the data she’s collected has answered many questions about how we mate: from how many one-night-stands we have to when singles start following their significant others on social media. Most significantly, though, the data has shown Fisher that online dating is not the romance killer many people believe it to be.
Here, we speak with Fisher about the role data plays in her study of love.
WIRED: Tell us about the power of data in the work you do. What’s been the benefit of partnering with a dating site in order to conduct your research?
DR. FISHER: It’s one of the great things that’s happened in my life. I’m a basic academic, and the vast majority of academic studies are based on college students in psychology classes. So, they may have about 250 people. I’m working with millions. And the thing is, these patterns—little patterns that you’d never find, or you’d have to doubt, or you couldn’t prove with a small sample—just become very clear with a big sample.
This is a great step forward for science—that these companies can collect the data, have the money to collect the data, are eager to collect the data, and are eager for a real scientific analysis of the data. I couldn’t be more pleased to even be alive at a time when big data is touching the scientific community, allowing us in, enabling us to do what I would regard as an awful lot of very good science.
WIRED: What’s that implication been for people trying to date today?
DR. FISHER: I’ve learned many things about singles. I know everything from how many orgasms they have to how many times they cook dinner for themselves to what they do for exercise, what they do in their spare time, what they’re looking for in a partner, how they break up with somebody, and on and on and on. It’s a deluge of data.
Many Americans right now are scared that technology is killing romance—that, somehow, when you go online to date somebody, it’s become artificial; and, that, in fact, we’re losing courtship and we’re losing romance and we’re not marrying—all of which is not true. I’ve got it solidly in the data.
What singles are doing is they’re carefully looking on the internet. They’re trying out a lot of people, no question about it. But what I’m seeing from this big data is that people stay friends for a long period of time before they even kiss, or they’re going rapidly into friends with benefits—but they’re just slowly coming out and telling friends and relatives, slowly moving in together, slowly making it official.
WIRED: What’s been your most surprising finding as a result of the data?
DR. FISHER: I did a study of 1,100 married people and I asked a lot of questions, but one of the questions was: Would you remarry the person that you’re currently married to? And 81 percent said, “Yes.” I see all of these things in all of our magazines: “Courtship is dead,” “People aren’t dating anymore,” “It’s just a hookup culture,” “Nobody knows how to commit.”
What we’re really seeing is an extension of the pre-commitment stage of courtship, or what I call commitment-lite. Where marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, now it’s the finale. Singles want to know every single thing about a partner before they tie the knot. I think we’re moving forward to a time of more marital stability, because we have this long pre-commitment stage.
I read a recent magazine article where they had all these college-aged kids saying, “We’re on dating apps and the boys are writing in and saying, ‘Hey, let’s get it on tonight,'” and they’re writing at midnight or something. Well, they interviewed a small group of kids. I have 14 million of them. That’s not happening everywhere in every way to all of us. And some of these magazine articles get us thinking that we’re going to hell in a handbasket. We’re not.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.