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Altfest thought this was pretty nifty. He called up his friend Robert Ross, a programmer at I. Each client paid five dollars and answered more than a hundred multiple-choice questions. TACT transferred the answers onto a computer punch card and fed the card into an I. In the beginning, TACT was restricted to the Upper East Side, an early sexual-revolution testing ground.

The demolition of the Third Avenue Elevated subway line set off a building boom and a white-collar influx, most notably of young educated women who suddenly found themselves free of family, opprobrium, and, thanks to birth control, the problem of sexual consequence. Within a year, more than five thousand subscribers had signed on.

Over time, TACT expanded to the rest of New York. It would invite dozens of matched couples to singles parties, knowing that people might be more comfortable in a group setting. Ross and Altfest enjoyed a brief media blitz. They wound up in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune and in Cosmopolitan. She makes Quiche Lorraine, plays chess, and like me she loves to ski. She had planned to interview Altfest, but he was out of the office, and she ended up talking to Ross.

The batteries died on her tape recorder, so they made a date to finish the interview later that week, which turned into dinner for two. They started seeing each other, and two years afterward they were married. Ross had hoped that TACT would help him meet someone, and, in a way, it had. After a couple of years, Ross grew bored with TACT and went into finance instead.

He and Lahrmer moved to London. Looking back now, he says that he considered computer dating to be little more than a gimmick and a fad. Lives hang in the balance, and yet we have typically relied for our choices on happenstance—offhand referrals, late nights at the office, or the dream of meeting cute. Online dating sites, whatever their more mercenary motives, draw on the premise that there has got to be a better way.

They approach the primeval mystery of human attraction with a systematic and almost Promethean hand. They rely on algorithms, those often proprietary mathematical equations and processes which make it possible to perform computational feats beyond the reach of the naked brain. Some add an extra layer of projection and interpretation; they adhere to a certain theory of compatibility, rooted in psychology or brain chemistry or genetic coding, or they define themselves by other, more readily obvious indicators of similitude, such as race, religion, sexual predilection, sense of humor, or musical taste.

There are those which basically allow you to browse through profiles as you would boxes of cereal on a shelf in the store. Others choose for you; they bring five boxes of cereal to your door, ask you to select one, and then return to the warehouse with the four others. Or else they leave you with all five. Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out.

First, people are swiping their way through profiles and deciding which to dismiss immediately or browse more closely. Then comes the choice to send a person a message, or to reply to one. And of course, the final, crucial decision, which isn't captured by these data: Bruch's team devised a statistical model that maps the "decision rules" people follow during the first two steps. Bruch and her team divided the rules into two broad categories, "deal breakers" and "deal makers," used to exclude or include people for the next level of contact.

Is mate selection like a job interview process, where the person with the best combination of positive factors wins? Or is it more like a Survivor-style reality show, where contestants are picked off one by one for a single failing? When it comes to the early stage of dating, it seems to be all about the deal breakers.

For one, prospective daters were wary of proceeding sight unseen. If a profile did not include a photo, for example, both men and women were 20 times less likely to even look at the rest of the person's profile. Smoking was another big deal breaker, associated with a fold drop in interest. But the biggest deal breaker of all turned out to be age, at least for women.

All other factors being equal, women overall were times less likely to browse the profile of a man significantly older than herself. But that changed with age. Perhaps unsurprisingly, men in their 40s tend to be more interested in younger women. Other differences between the sexes emerged. But when it came to body weight, men were less likely to browse the profile of a woman who was heavy-set, whereas women showed little aversion to—with some showing even more interest in—heavier-set men.

These patterns also generally held for the second step, messaging, but with smaller effects.


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