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Better Loving Through Chemistry?


Let's face it, dating is a drag. There was a time when we thought the computer was going to make it all better. As a result, one out of every 100 Internet users now posts a personal ad. But most of us learned the hard way that finding someone who shares our love of film noir and obscure garage bands does not a perfect match make. So why not try science instead? In other words, can the length of your index finger or your ability to judge spatial relationships land you Mr. or Ms. Right?

O.K., you have your doubts. But who knows; it may be worth a try. On Oct. 11, the largest online dating site, Match.com (), launched Chemistry.com, a new service that attempts to use neuroscience to come up with the ideal match for its subscribers. The centerpiece is a lengthy questionnaire designed by Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University whose recent book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, lays out the biology behind our romantic choices. Answer the questions, pay your subscription fee, and Match.com promises to grace your inbox with possibilities that, you hope, won't be dates from hell.

So how does Chemistry.com do its magic? By studying brain scans and behavioral studies, Fisher theorizes that the type of person who can ring your bell is hard-wired into your neurons. Embedded in each of our brains is a "love map," she says, that guides our choice of a mate. Chemistry.com's questions are meant to decipher that map. It then runs each profile through a proprietary computer algorithm to find that special someone who will light up your neurons. And you thought romance was in the stars.

Chemistry.com is just the latest in a series of online profiling services. Fast-growing dating sites like eHarmony.com, True.com, and PerfectMatch.com require subscribers to spend up to an hour filling out questionnaires. EHarmony even rejects potential subscribers whose profiles don't meet their mainstream criteria. Ouch.

Dating sites can't be too choosy, though. Although some 22 million Americans subscribe to online dating sites, JupiterResearch estimates that industry revenues will total a relatively modest $500 million this year. And with many users tiring of constantly searching through ads for "The one," growth is slowing dramatically -- to 9% annually, from 19% in 2004 and 77% in 2003.

PULLING THE TRIGGER

So far there's little evidence that personality profiling works any better than a blind date set up by your so-called friends. But online daters seem to go for it. After all, writing up your own sales pitch is torture. "Casual daters have the worst personal ads ever," says David B. Evans, editor of the Web magazine Online Dating Insider. "They sign up at 11 p.m. after they've had a couple of beers with their single friends. Of course people are better off taking these tests."

As for Chemistry.com's scientific claims, Fisher says they're legit. The typical dating site finds matches based only on similarities. But "we're trying to get at some of the very subtle ways that people complement each other," says Fisher. So Chemistry.com asks such head-scratchers as "When solving a problem, do you ignore secondary information and focus on the goal?" And yes, it asks you to measure your index fingers (studies show their length is an indicator of how much testosterone you were exposed to in the womb).

The Web site also aims to get online daters to pull the trigger and meet. You know the drill: Two people exchange endless e-mails, but never actually get together. Chemistry.com prods matchees into a quick date.

It hasn't worked for Erin J. Scofield, 31, of Denver -- yet. She did meet two men while testing the service this summer. Did lightning strike? No, but she's not giving up. "It was obvious there was at least some compatibility," she says. Will this software find love for Scofield and millions like her? Let's just hope the neurons know what they're looking for.

By Catherine Arnst in New York


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