The homepage of LoveFlutter.com.
Last week I was forwarded a press release for a new dating website called LoveFlutter.com. Interestingly, it promises to screen out people who are "boring":
“To coincide with our launch we’ve worked with Dr Simon Moore of The British Psychological Society to create a 60-second test that scores how interesting a person is, out of 100. It’s called The Quirky-Interesting Test and we’re harnessing it to exclude any ‘unexciting’ types at sign-up. Potential members must pass the test in order to join LoveFlutter.”
Wow. An innovative new test backed by a real-life scientist who deems himself an authority on what is "quirky" and "interesting"? This sounded like exactly the kind of tonic my love life has long been in dire need of. Could science tell me whether I was interesting enough to be allowed to have sex with people?
Disappointingly, when I looked at the Q-I test the questions didn’t seem very science-based. They didn't look very fun-based, either, unless you think fun is something dull marketing executives have in brainstorming sessions in beige conference rooms:
“How many times have you travelled outside you own country in the last six months?"
"Have you completed or would you consider a bungee jump?"
"If you were in a band (and could play guitar or sing) what role would you take?"
"How many people liked, commented or RTed your most recent status update/tweet?"
"Would you go to the cinema on your own?"
"How many languages can you speak?"
"How many gigs have you been to in the last six months?"
"After a hard day's work, what would you rather watch on TV (sitcoms, documentaries, or reality TV)?"
Well, hang on; let's analyse this barrage of leading questions. Go to London City airport and collar any one of the thousands of accountants who split their time between the office in Canada Water and bars that shut at 9PM in Zurich – then come back and tell me, was it a particularly riveting conversation? Is Keith Richards more or less interesting than Dan Gillespie Sells (the guy from The Feeling)? What if something you'd tweeted had amassed 21,000 RTs because people hate you and think you're an idiot? What if you’ve not been to any gigs in the last six months, but you are a regular at Pedestal or the Royal Opera House… or both?
Clearly, none of these questions have anything much to do with how interesting you are. This test is not going to exclude boring people. It may, however, exclude people who aren’t wealthy enough to go abroad three times in six months, or educated enough to be able to speak three languages, or able-bodied enough to be up for gigs and bungee jumps. "Interesting" in this case seems to be employed as a synonym for “a middle-class professional with conventional interests”.
There are plenty of dating websites with dodgy matching methods. Does it really matter that LoveFlutter is adding to that pool? Some professionals would argue that it does. Psychologist Dr Petra Boynton explained to me that she’s spent years giving advice to people who've been “made to feel rubbish and under-confident for not being ‘good’ at dating, or who believe themselves to be ‘boring’ or ‘undatable’". She adds that at the workshops she runs for mental health service users, "this kind of anxiety really comes through – the pressure to be 'exciting' is very difficult for many".
When I emailed LoveFlutter’s co-founder and spokesman, Daigo Smith, he accepted that the quality of "interestingness" is a subjective thing, and didn’t really defend the test as a scientific exercise. “What we're trying to achieve is to gather like-minded, interesting singles together in one place so they can meet each other and connect around things they love doing,” he told me. “As for excluding people and telling them they're 'not interesting' we do that in a nice way. We never tell someone they're boring, that'd be really negative – we just hint that they might want to explore their interesting side a little more."
He didn't explain what this exploration might involve – a "quirky" bungee jump? – but he did defend his website's screening policy: "The 'boring' angle is just what the press have latched onto!”
That sounds fair enough, but the wider online dating industry is starting to look as bad for consumers as the wider self-help market. There, accepted best practice has been obfuscated by crowds of market players who sell elaborate solutions based on making people's problems seem more complex than they really are. Attaching a voice of "science" to your product – ideally the voice of someone who can spout lots of complicated-sounding words to cover up their lack of ideas – can give you a real edge over your competitors. Meanwhile, people with real problems are left adrift in a minefield of bad advice, with sites like LoveFlutter only adding to the difficulty of finding companionship in an uncaring universe.
So what is LoveFlutter's in-house mind-scientist, Dr Simon Moore – a professional psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society – doing promoting such an enterprise? “Surely it's better that trained professionals are offering advice, guidance and support to such work rather than letting any old person develop unsupported and lay work which no doubt will cause bigger ethical and psychological problems,” he argued when I challenged him.
What, then, is the science supporting this particular work? “Scientifically the more interesting you are, the more likely it is that you'll attract more interest..."
"...and also people will stay interested in you for longer. So the site tries to reflect that aspect.”
Again, there's a problem with whose definition of "interesting" we're working with here. Is it a scientific one? Dr Moore’s explanation of the test’s logic suggested a rather... traditional view. “We know that males look for signs of physical attraction in prospective long-term mates, as attraction signals health, good genetic stock, youth and energy – things required for producing healthy offspring. Females on the other hand look for signs of resources – not just money, but status, personality, intelligence, humour – as these are all signs that the male can a) provide for children and b) invest good genes in a child. So, interesting males suggest that they can cope with numerous tasks – that they are resourceful and intelligent.”
In other words, while Moore did accept that, “obviously 'attractive', 'sexy' and 'interesting' are all somewhat subjective judgment values”, it seems the test is predicated on the idea that men should be useful and women should look pretty, a theory enthusiastically endorsed by cavemen. Revolutionary stuff here.
Every profession has its sell-outs, and science is no exception. Recent history is littered with examples of scientists who have been willing to sell their authority to all manner of dubious commercial partners. Susan Greenfield used to promote a "brain-training" program called MindFit, before deciding that actually computers were melting our brains, while TV’s Robert Winston used to be an enthusiastic cheerleader for fish oil supplements.
With LoveFlutter, some would argue that Dr Simon Moore joins that long and ignoble tradition. Is it harmless? Moore argued to me that “it's no different ethically than asking questions of someone in a bar,” but then questions in a bar don’t come endorsed by professional doctors or carrying the initials of the British Psychological Society.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with scientists taking their expertise into industry, but there is a danger in attaching the label of scientific credibility to things that haven’t earned it. It misleads the public and it degrades the label for everybody else. More than that, it provides another easy stick to beat psychology with, a field already struggling thanks to the behaviour of its mediocre professional body, and a small army of "professionals" whose main ambition seems to be to get on the telly. Perhaps they should spend a little more time sorting out their own affairs. I know a very interesting dating website.
Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to email@example.com.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins
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