Why Not Friend Match?

Bryan Caplan recently pointed out to a few of us that while many dating web sites offer to help you find matching romantic mates, there are far fewer friend finding helpers.  We tend to collect friends informally, by liking the people we meet for other reasons, and especially friends of friends. But for mating purposes we are more willing to choose folks based on a list of their interests, an intro paragraph, a picture, etc.  Why the difference?

The explanation that occurs to me is:  We need mates more for their simple surface features, while we need friends more to serve as social allies in our existing social network.  Since we need friends in substantial part to serve as allies in our social world, supporting us against opposing coalitions, it makes sense to draw our friends from our existing social world.  And since we need mates more for their personal quality, e.g., good genes, youth, wealth, smarts, mood, etc., it makes sense to pick them more via such features.

Now if the personal qualities we sought in mates were difficult to discern and describe, dating web sites wouldn’t be very useful; we’d more want to rely on personal experience and on folks who know us well recommending others who they thought would match us well.  And we do like to think that our mate (and friend) preferences are complex and subtle, not easily captured in a few match website entries. But in fact, I suspect, the truth is that we are more mating simpletons than we care to admit; we can actually find much of what we need to know about potential mates in a few simple items, especially the picture.

Added 1p: Many suggest the explanation is that friends are worth much less than mates because we can have many friends.  But I value top friends similarly to top mates – am I unusual?

Added 15Aug: Al Roth weighs in.

Added 12Nov 2013: Now there is at least one friend match site: bigfriendo

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  • arne_b

    we are more mating simpletons

    This generalization seems to be based on the assumption that dating web sites are the most suitable mate finding tool for, erm, all of us.

    Couldn’t it be that they just cater to a special subset of the population, to which all of the above applies, while many others find dating web sites of no use whatsoever?! I am generalizing from one example here, too, that is I never considered using one when I was single (many years), yet I am, to put it mildly, not unsatisfied with the mate I found with search limited to the meatspace. 😉

  • Khoth

    I’d have thought the big differences are that friends are non-exclusive, and that people are less picky about them, so it’s much easier to find people to be friends informally, so websites for it aren’t needed.

    Anyhow, it’s not really true that people pick mates based on a paragraph and a picture, unless there are a lot of blind marriage dating sites that I’m not aware of. The information there serves to filter out rejections based on simple criteria, and then you actually meet them and talk to them and so forth before a term like “mate” is appropriate.

  • I think a more plausible explanation is that we require our mates to meet many more criteria than we require of our friends, and therefore we need to search a much bigger universe in order to find someone who meets those criteria.

    • Josh

      I’d have thought the big differences are that friends are non-exclusive, and that people are less picky about them, so it’s much easier to find people to be friends informally, so websites for it aren’t needed.


      I think a more plausible explanation is that we require our mates to meet many more criteria than we require of our friends, and therefore we need to search a much bigger universe in order to find someone who meets those criteria.


      There are also lots of web sites for job seekers. Employment and dating are both generally exclusive, which is why we’re picky about whom we hire and date. And that’s why we have tools to help us.

      I can tell you, since I’m doing the online dating thing, that I’d far rather meet women in person. I’ve dated or been rejected by all of the attractive single women in my social circle, and that awkwardness is by far preferable to having to spend so much time setting up dates with strangers. For geeks like me who prefer male-dominated activities, though, online dating can help open up our search space a little bit.

      I’ve tried all kinds of other ways to expand my circle, and I’m still trying to think of better ways. Meeting people on a dating site is highly inefficient. As for superficial preferences, people hardly ever look like their pictures, and the profiles are usually misleading. Even when all of that is correct, though, people really do have deeper dating preferences that are impossible to convey on a site like that. I want someone who has integrity, for example, and that’s just not something you can learn about someone without knowing them for a while.

  • Zdeno

    I think there is some truth to Robin’s hypothesis, but I believe a more important factor is the signal associated with actively searching for friends Vs. mates. Looking online requires implicitly admitting that you don’t have enough friends already, and thus are a low-quality potential ally. This signal exists in online mating as well but it is much weaker, because everyone is single occasionally in their lives, and the ability to find a mate in a meatspace bar is not necessarily a signal of higher quality (especially for females).

  • James

    The marginal benefit of one more friend is quite low, whereas the marginal benefit of a partner is very high, so we are prepared to pay a high cost to meet a partner and a very low one to meet a friend.

    The exception to this might if one has very few (and especially no) friends. I have heard of people who have advertised for friends online but these have people who have just moved to new city where they know very few people – so the marginal benefit of a new friend would be high.

  • Andr

    Important to point out:
    a)People finding “mates” online are more likely simply looking to perform the mating act.
    b)At least in real life–we choose friends, even same gender friends, based on a number of featues, including their attractiveness, whether or not you’re gay.
    c)I’d also argue that in terms of acquiring a satisfying mate it’s equally valuable to select based of the same intuitive criteria by which we pick our friends. ie; if my mate isn’t going to be a solid ally within social structures, who will be?

  • I’ve done online dating, and I’m inclined to regard the “matching service” thing as a gimmick. Mostly, anyway–once, I got highly matched with a girl I was already friends with, and who I knew I was undeniably similar to, which makes me pause before dismissing the whole thing.

    But my natural inclination is not to look for a girlfriend based on mechanical criteria, but based on talking to girls and trying to figure out what they’re like the old-fashioned way. In fact, enough people find online dating intrinsically dissatisfying that Dan Ariely has actually tried to do research to figure out why we find it so unsatisfying!

    I’d also like to mention a counter-example to the generalization you’re trying to make here. Next time I move to a new city, I plan on trying out making new friends with Meetup.com. But then, I’ll be choosing people based on a single shared interest! How much more superficial can you get?

  • Cyrus

    Online dating isn’t particularly effective, but (some) people are willing to try it anyway because they believe that the marginal utility between 0 and 1 romantic partners is large.

    There is no reason to believe that online friend finding would be any more effective, and the marginal utility between n and n+1 friends is not so large, maybe even for n=0.

  • Tribsantos

    I think for a while you’ve been raising bold hypotheses without necessessary empirical verification. You have a hypothesis. I can think of another, which I find more likely. People will try to find lovers on a website because it is a lot harder than making friends. In great extent, that is probably because a line divides people who are lovers and people who are not, but no such line divides people who are friends and people who are not. So I think most people that go to those websites try to save embarassment from being rejected. But becoming a friend is something you can do gradually, without fear of being rejected. The importante thing, I think, is that you should try to test more your ideas, or present them as just speculation. It seems you have too much certainty here…

  • interesting thought. That’s right up the alley of my current research for Booklamp (measuring literature). The core of our system can take any data that includes attributes about… well, anything, and find other similar entries.


    PS the public side of Booklamp doesn’t reflect what I’m talking about here – it’s a research thing for now I guess, but I’ve been thinking about all the other ways to use it, from selecting foods based on nutrition data to matching friends.

  • lemmy caution

    But I value top friends similarly to top mates – am I unusual?

    That is kind of a weak statement. The strong version “I value my best friend as much as my wife” would be more impressive.

  • Sasha

    OKCupid.com is a free site that mixes dating with friendship. It even offers both “Match%” and “Friend%” between people as a measure of compatibility (based on answers to lots of questions). The site attracts a lot of poly-amorous folk.

  • noematic

    Collecting friends locally is likely to produce a degree of homogeneity, which is to our immediate social benefit. Heterogeneity is an important characteristic in a mate so a wide search produces more diversified options from which to choose a mate.

  • Nick Walker

    The simplest explanation is the best: our friends share our sex whereas our mates are the opposite sex.

  • Douglas Knight

    You mentioned in passing a hypothesis that I think is adequate, namely that friends should be part of a social circle, while mates often come from another social circle. To explain dating sites, I don’t think you need to go past this to talk about superficiality.

  • John Maxwell IV

    I’d go for friend match.

  • People will try to find lovers on a website because it is a lot harder than making friends.

    In my experience finding lovers (read: sex partners) is easier than finding friends. I think when you reach a certain age (I’m 31) most of one’s friends will belong to a certain social group with pretty specific characteristics, unless you’ve perhaps known them since childhood, before one’s identity has been fully formed.

    If you’re kind of a generalist (who works from home, too) then finding people with whom to continually hang out with is harder than getting some digits at a club and hooking up a few days later to satisfy an obvious and base desire everyone shares.

  • I disagree with Robin. For reasonably attractive adults sex is pretty easy find if you go actively go looking for it and least in reasonably large cities. When I was single I found finding physically appealing people to have sex with FAR easier than finding the mental compatibility I was looking for. I had to meet a lot of people to find someone I fit together with as well as my wife. Sexual compatibility is a chunk of the equation but not anywhere near the whole deal.

    I’ve been in bad relationships with good sex before. It doesnt come even close to being the whole deal.

  • DPC

    I don’t think the point is how much value you place on top friends as compared to a mate. The level of commitment is what is important. We make a greater commitment to our mates (share time, money, household tasks.) regardless of the relative value of that relationship. My wife followed me to New Jersey when igot anew job. My best friend did not.
    With the exception of commitment, how is a friend different from a mate?

  • tom

    1. If Robin keeps writing things like these, he should worry at least a little about what his wife will do with the body after the freezers take the head.

    2. Are the comments sections here a form of friend finder?

    3. We need a simian status analysis of Jay Thomas’s post above.

  • ST

    I heard in a TED talk recently that the average American has only 1.5 friends, and that this number is less than the ideal number for human flourishing. Assuming demand for friends is present (but some other factor, like ineptitude, lack of opportunity, or busyness is at work), a friend website could be successful.

  • Musmus

    I met my wife over 10 years ago through a dating service. We’re still very happily married, with 2 kids now. Finding a person you’re willing to mate/date with is a completely different thing than finding someone you want to spend every day with for the rest of your life. Matching services work for some people in some circumstances because of the numbers involved. The more people you can meet, the better your chances of meeting someone you want to marry. Some people are just not in situations where they are meeting enough people in the potential husband/wife pool.

    Example: Me at age 32 (12 years ago):
    1) Single male working in a very heavily male dominated business (I’d estimate %80 male employees) with little interaction between any coworkers (more than half work from home, everyone works alone, there are no “group projects”). Work is where a lot of people meet their future spouses.

    2) Atheist, so meeting a future spouse at church is out. Church is a great place to meet people in the marrying pool.

    3) Living far away from where I grew up and went to school. Friends from high school and college are a great source for meeting people in the marrying pool.

    4) Non-drinker. Bars are out. Bars are another popular place for meeting people in the marrying pool.

    Given those factors, at the time I was looking, I just wasn’t meeting many people who I would consider as possible future spouses. Matching services give you basically a large number of people to meet. Meeting enough people greatly improves your odds of meeting the right person.

  • trish Ricketts

    i have never responded to any site really, period.but my friends would always have me.whether i agreed with them or their actions. friends don’t humiliate they give advice yet still care even if the advice wasn’t taken.you no what? of course not. i am a 48 yo woman that has been in an abusive marriage for 8yrs.nobody wants to be a friend to that. i understand.but even still beyond the abuse u want to be free.i want to talk. about life issues.my beautiful grandkids,etc. i am lonely becuz i feel nobody wants to be friends with an abused person. i am normal beyond that. trust me give me a chance.

    • smc

      I understand you. I was there. Most of my friends left because they felt they brought more abuse on me, so therefore, I was left with nothing but the abusive partner. I turned to social networking to make friends; the virtual world where no one knew my situation and I could talk like I would to a close friend. I think friend sites for people in these situations or even those handicapped that cannot leave home are wonderful. I would not date from a dating site.

    • Michelline

      It must be hard going through a situation like your past. I hope things has turned for the better.

  • First of all, stupid question: What about sites like friendfinder? Of course, indeed, all such matching systems are almost comically inadequate.

    Networking into extended social circles is handy, for anyone who has that option. But do results accrue from the individual diligently working the social works the network, or how, if at all, any responsive social network actively seeks to provide the individual new introductions?

    Also, yes it’s a good point how alliance, also the terms, focus and quality thereof, all in all, is a crucially important dimension, far beyond the crass and Machiavellian. Supportive cooperation is essential to survival. Even love cannot conquer alliance stillborn. Alliance, readymade, is an aspect of heteronomy. Indeed, cliques of bullies ally very easily by simply pandering to one another’s Sadism. But the good fight too, is doomed in lone struggle. And autonomy is simply distinct from self sufficiency. Notably, Ecclesiastes does not even trouble to compartmentalize alliance distinctly from emotional needs and bonds.

  • For those of you who say online dating doesn’t work- 1 in 5 american couples met online in 2010. It is still the fastest-growing method to meet someone.

    And in response to this topic- there IS a FriendMatch! It’s at http://www.friendmatch.us!
    It’s free, so I invite you all to come for a visit!
    Ciao, Katie

  • Kevin Knight

    Now, you’ve heard the term friends are forever. Do not assume commitment isn’t in friendships. Then you have levels and degrees of friendships along with types of friendships. Friend, good friend, special friend, Best friend. Of course Best friend is the ones you’re closest to, trust the most and have more in common with. As you drop down one at a time you’ll find if your best friend was not available and you wanted to do something or go somewhere your Special friends would come to mind. In no luck in the special friend choice your good friend would be chosen. We tend to use that word friend often wrongly. We call people friends who are truthfully acquaintances, associates, colleagues, or people we don’t know that well. Friends should know us well enough that if they were out somewhere in a store they would spot an item and know whether we’d buy it or not. A Good friend Special friend or best friend is One soul inhabiting two bodies. I don’t put a mate above a close friend. Mates come and go but as you’ve heard, “Friends are forever.” Whether we move from NY to CA the friend may not follow but the tie isn’t ever broken, we still keep in touch, visit time to time and always keep up with the lives of each other and come to help when needed.
    Whether single or married, no one’s life is worth living if you do not have a Close Friend. You can make it through life without a mate but not without a friend. As people marry as we can see, mates come and they go. Married today and divorced later. Divorces do not happen between 2 Good Close Friends.
    Sad part about friends is there is usually a time to find them. In HS and College we usually find them without looking. As you run into people class after class term after term, you’ll realize certain folks have a lot in common with you and you wind up talking to them more and more and being around them a lot. The friendship has formed but not by an aggressive search by you or them. The more you have in common the stronger the friendship will be. One common interest won’t hold two people close together for long.

    When moving to a new city, being retired, and out of the working world and school system finding friends is like trying to win a lotto. Its very very difficult. You dont’ want to meet a person who just happens to like one thing that you like. You’re looking for someone to be a part of your daily life. Shop with, talk to, watch movies with, go places with, etc…

    I may be different from most of you but my thought is that the ONLY difference between a Friend and a Mate is the Sexual part. The Best friend, and the Mate are considered almost equal. But, you will have your romantic events, intercourse and such with the Mate not the friend. Thats the dividing line that allows me to consider this sexual person my mate and the non sexual one my friend.

  • St Johndiane

    I agree. I moved about 18 months ago and I haven’t been able to find any friends or should i say, anyone that I would like to have as a friend. I can’t talk to my husband about issues that I can with a close friend and I really do miss having someone to talk with each day.