This is part of CNET's "It's Complicated" series about the role technology plays in our relationships.
After a string of mind-numbing Match.com dates, you meet another prospective partner at a bar, order drinks and start chatting.
Your date's a conversational wizard, looks even hotter in person and lives for Star Wars just like you do. You haven't clicked with someone like this in months, but there's one thing: Your date hates Mexican food. Back at home, you're back online. You hit gold with tonight's date, but searching a few more profiles might turn up someone who's just as great and enjoys burritos too.
Welcome to the paradox of choice, modern-love style, where a smarter, funnier, richer, better-looking partner could be just a click or swipe away.
Or so you think.
About a decade ago, I wrote "The Paradox of Choice," which presented evidence that while choice is good, there can be too much of a good thing. And when there is, three unfortunate things might happen.
First, instead of being liberated by lots of choice, people become paralyzed by indecision.
Second, when they get over their paralysis and do choose, they're likely to make worse decisions when they have lots of choices.
Third, even when people choose well, they're less satisfied when they make their choice from lots of options rather than from just a few. Think of it this way: People like their grilled salmon and asparagus less when they've chosen it from 20 entrees than when they've picked it from six.
We want choice, but do we need it?
These hurdles are steeper for people my collaborators and I call "maximizers" -- those of us who tend to seek the absolute best and tend to experience regret when even anticipating making a decision. ("Satisficers," on the other hand, are content with stopping their search at something, or someone, they deem good enough.)
Though my book touches on all kinds of decisions -- what to buy, where to vacation, what to order in a restaurant, where to go to college -- it doesn't tackle romance. But it's an important question. In our world of Tinder, Facebook and countless dating sites, does all that choice help or hinder your search for love?
The answer is both.
There's a lot that's good about modern romance, especially for people in remote areas who can't just walk out their door and bump into other singles on the train or at the gym. At the same time, we've created a world where many people can't settle into a relationship, and if they do, they're always looking over their partner's shoulder in case someone "better" comes along.
In this climate, only the very best will do. With so many options out there, why settle? I'm pretty sure that before online dating, people weren't eager to settle for romantic partners, even when pickings were slim. But now, settling seems positively un-American.
And by settling, I mean being able to recognize when great is great enough and stop swiping right.
Journalist Lori Gottlieb covered this phenomenon a few years ago in her excellent book, "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough." She describes her own (and other women's) struggle to find Mr. Perfect. As the truism goes, perfect is the enemy of good, and in the case of romance, pursuit of perfection can be a recipe for a lonely life.
Then there's the phenomenon comedian Aziz Ansari talks about in his book "Modern Romance." It can take time to develop enough rapport and mutual comfort for people to start to show the deepest, most important parts of their character. Are you willing to be patient and put in the work it takes to really get to know another person? Why would you when there are hundreds of alternatives in line, a mere click away, waiting for their auditions?
Show me what you got, right now
Some daters might as well show up to a first meeting and blurt, "Show me what you've got, and you have two margaritas worth of my time and money to do it."
We push ourselves to make decisions based on ridiculously superficial attributes and dump potentially compatible partners before their more meaningful qualities have a chance to show themselves. We pick the tall guy over the shorter, kinder one, and go for the younger woman over the slightly older but more compassionate one. Academic pedigree and impressive job titles trump shared values.
Fair enough, you might say. Maybe Tinder is ultimately unhelpful. But what about dating sites that use mathematical algorithms to make matches? They've got to be an improvement over the crap shoot of who happens to be working one cubicle over.
Based on the best evidence they were able to look at (dating sites aren't too forthcoming with data), psychologist Eli Finkel and four collaborators found little proof anyone in this business knows much at all about how two partners will grow and mature over time. Attributes such as friendly, adventuresome or athletic are not whole people.
Finkel and his team also suggest we can become slaves to lists of attributes spit out by websites and apps, making romantic decisions on the basis of very flawed evidence. They say dating sites can put us into a kind of judgment mode, where we're constantly evaluating and finding fault instead of just experiencing being with the other person.
So, is modern romance and the seemingly endless choice it offers us paradise or hell? For some, the former; for others, the latter; and for many, somewhere in between. We have exactly what we say we want, unlimited options, and they're hurting us.
Consider a different approach
So what to do?
Being a satisficer would help -- even for those with very high standards. So would looking for reasons to accept instead of reasons to reject. Appreciating that the most important things in a relationship require time and effort to cultivate would also go a long way.
If all those things fail, there's always arranged marriage.
Barry Schwartz is a visiting professor at U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business. In addition to "The Paradox of Choice," his other books include "Practical Wisdom" and "Why We Work."
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