Love at First Site: Professor Stephanie Tong Receives 3-Year NSF Grant for Online Dating Studies

Now, more than ever, people use technology to help them make decisions. Which restaurants to eat at, which stores to shop at, and which brands to buy. In 2015, the online referral business is booming and companies like Yelp and Angie's List have created an entire industry based on people’s desire to do their due diligence before making daily social or economic commitments. So it comes as no surprise that more and more people are turning to technology to help them make romantic decisions as well.


Dr. Stephanie Tong, assistant professor of communication studies at Wayne State, has been studying the association between romantic dating and computer-mediated communication for more than a year. She and her team recently received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation in September to continue her research. The $851,462 grant is the largest in the Department of Communication’s history.


Tong has had a long-running interest in online communication and close relationships and says that she wants to know how the relational landscape in American society is being affected by the rise of online dating. Finding out what the social implications are, Tong says, is an important question that remains to be answered.


"Online dating is one of the most popular ways for single Americans to meet a romantic partner, behind being introduced to someone by a friend or family," Tong says. "We're interested in looking at how new online dating technology affects the ways people initiate relationships and the ways they make decisions; when they decide who to date, and whether or not to pursue the relationship."


Tong is collaborating on her interdisciplinary study with Dr. Richard Slatcher and Dr. Jeff Hancock, the co-investigators on the grant. Slatcher is an associate professor of psychology at Wayne State and Hancock is a professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University.


Tong's eight-student research team at Wayne State conducts their experiments in the Online Interaction Lab in Manoogian Hall, analyzing daters' survey responses and eye tracking data. She says these particular types of research methods allow her team to see how participants react to the system-generated cues of dating websites, and whether they trust the websites' recommendations.


"There are lots of different features of online dating websites that come from algorithmic selection or curation," Tong says. "Where do people focus their attention? Do they focus it more on machine-generated information or do they focus it on human-generated information, such as profiles?"


Tong says her preliminary results have been somewhat surprising.


"I've been surprised at how much people trust technology for something like romance, which is usually thought of as very serendipitous and a 'just happens' kind of thing," Tong says. "When it comes to romantic encounters, we're finding people do trust these sites and algorithms a lot to help facilitate that process."


Though much of her study is centered around compatibility algorithms, Tong says her team is less focused on the mathematical workings of these systems, and more on people's perceptions of them.


"We're not trying to reverse engineer eHarmony or anything," Tong says. "What we're really interested in is people's attitudes and opinions of algorithms, and how does that affect the decisions they make."


Tong and her team are currently working on a study that will help determine if there are any particular circumstances and personality types that are more or less inclined to trust technology for their search for love, but she says it's still too early to tout any results.


Studying the effects that online dating is having on the way single Americans choose romantic partners is important, Tong says, because now there is enough history and data associated with this technology to ascertain if people view it as a viable way of meeting people long term.


"The stigma is fading. I think it's becoming a pretty standard practice, especially with young adults," Tong says. "These 'new' technologies are not that new anymore, and that’s another good reason to study it. If so many people are using these sites and this is truly one way that people turn to in order to get together, is that going to change the relational landscape over time?"


Online dating has surged in terms of membership since launched in 1995, with at least one in 10 American adults now saying they've used a dating site or app, according to the Pew Research Center. Tong says she attributes this swell in popularity to today's mobile-friendly society.


"It's convenient. That's one of the biggest advantages of online dating," Tong says. "You get to widen your social networks. You get access to a larger dating pool. I think a lot of people see the benefits of it."


Tong and her research team have presented their pilot data at the International Communication Association, the National Communication Association, and the Central States Communication Association. She plans on pursuing other media outlets once the study is complete.


Interested individuals can email to learn more about participation in Dr. Tong's studies, which she says are slated for completion in 2018-2019.