Not long ago, meeting a mate online was an oddity. Today, it is almost the norm, according to Gian Gonzaga, PhD, senior director of research and development at the dating site eHarmony.
"The Internet is the single largest contributor to newlywed couples in the United States—more than friends, church, even school," said Gonzaga. eHarmony itself, he said, accounts for almost 5 percent of U.S. newlywed couples.
But perhaps a more important fact for psychologists is that the Web 3.0 technology that brought these couples together also offers a fertile platform for scientists to conduct research. "This technology can facilitate a new era of research on a scale we haven't had before," said Gonzaga at a session during APA's 2011 Annual Convention.
That's because Web 3.0 is much more interactive than its predecessors, Gonzaga explained. Web 1.0, launched in 1993, was primarily driven by content that came from the top down: Businesses and other institutions would put information online and search engines allowed people to find it. In 2003, Web 2.0 took the technology a step further by enabling consumers to upload and share their own information, resulting in the era of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Today, the applications available through Web 3.0 are able to take information that's on the Web and churn out new findings for users. "The Web can give something back that was not previously known," said Gonzaga. "Web 3.0 learns and understands who you are and gives you something back."
A good example of this is Amazon's "recommender system," which tracks what you've looked at and bought, and uses that information to recommend new products to you.
eHarmony was one of the earliest recommender systems. It applied the long-held theory that relationships are more likely to be successful when partners share similar characteristics. eHarmony learns about the personalities, values and emotional tendencies of its users and then uses its Web 3.0 technology to recommend compatible matches. When eHarmony studied the marriages that resulted from the service, the company found that those couples who had similar personalities were more satisfied with their relationship up to four year later, evidence that the previous psychological theory was true: Marriages are more successful when partners are similar.
"We've been able to show that a principle that's been out there in the scientific literature for a while actually does play out," said Gonzaga. "That's a very fundamental change ... that has never been available to us before."
Gonzaga cautioned, however, that researchers need to think very carefully about the applications. To take ideas that work in the lab or in clinicians' rooms and apply them on the Web, the applications must be effective and powerful, they must be scalable and people have to like using them.
"These tools will allow psychologists to have a bigger voice and to hopefully help more people," he said.