The Paradox Of Dating Choice

When it comes to your dating options, the more the merrier, right? Not necessarily! We explore why having TOO many potential matches can actually lead to dating paralysis — and how to overcome it.

By Dave Singleton

ollywood sex symbol Mae West once said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” But she never experienced dating in the fast-paced age of technology and online dating!

On the surface, it’s a Martha Stewart-ish “good thing” to have more choices when it comes to dating. More people meet their mates online than ever before (1 in 5, according to recent statistics), and you
I feel stymied by the sheer numbers of men who are dating online now.
increase your odds of finding someone special by logging in and virtually connecting. It’s especially easier now that social barriers against women making the first move are dissipating — “but easier is not necessarily better,” I thought to myself while reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. The book’s key argument is that, despite all of our myriad choices (from salad dressing to blue jeans to online dates), our overall levels of satisfaction may actually decrease as our options increase. (In one speed-dating experiment, Schwartz and his researchers found that more “matches” were made if subjects had eight potential partners to choose from than if they had 20.)

New Yorker Ali, 32, agrees with the premise: “I feel stymied by the sheer numbers of men who are dating online now,” she says. “It’s intimidating to figure out who I like, but even harder to consider that, for the average dude checking out online profiles, I’m just one of a million girls in the big city.” Jenny, 28, a Los Angeles native, puts it this way: “All these choices make it impossible not to constantly wonder if there’s someone better out there.”

So how do you successfully adapt to the high-tech dating world and take better control of your choices? Follow these four strategies and stop choice from getting in the way of your dating pleasure:

1. Explore how having more options may equal a higher risk of dissatisfaction.
Just knowing that you run the risk of letting your options overwhelm you is the first step in managing the paradox of dating choice. For example: Are you unhappy with your date or just distracted by the thought that there’s someone better around the corner that could make you happier? “The result is an ongoing self-appraisal of how your personal life is going, like having a continual readout of your emotional heart rate,” notes Dr. Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. In a recent Psychology Today article titled “The Expectations Trap,” Cherlin notes that having endless choices to make can undermine an individual’s happiness if the focus on options “creates a heightened sensitivity to problems that arise in intimate relationships. When that happens, negative emotions can get top priority in our brains, and then look out! There are so many opportunities to decide that it’s unsatisfactory.”

2. Apply some objective criteria to your screening process.
“So many men, so little time” might sound like an empowering song title — but does the very thought make you want to crawl into bed with the covers pulled over your head rather than decide who to contact at all? Fight the fear and stop wading through hundreds of profiles without a process in place to help you make decisions. You can simplify your options by making two lists; the first should be “must-haves” and include those attributes you require in a mate — such as age, education, looks, religious background, or other variables. The second list is “nice-to-haves” and consists of attributes you’d like in a partner, but don’t consider to be relationship deal-breakers. Then approach all your myriad online dating choices with a newfound sense of organization, ready to cut out those options that don’t meet the requirements in your first list.

Whether you screen your matches by who chooses you or the prospects you choose — via an online dating service’s pre-selected matching criteria, your own,
Being picky is fine… within reason.
or some combination of the two — use that objective process during your search to reduce your set of matches to a more manageable size. And keep in mind that many women buck society’s expectation that they wait around passively to be asked out on dates by initiating contact themselves. Doing this can be empowering; choosing to email someone first can help alleviate the pressure to find dates because you’re in the driver’s seat.

3. Don’t think — just “blink.”
Being inundated with a plethora of choices, combined with your constant inner comparisons amongst your recent dates (like wondering whether the chemistry-challenged coffee chat with Mr. So-So is worth a second try), can wear anyone down. Everyone knows you don’t want to make a bad decision based on snap judgments. But in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the author’s research supports the idea that our initial, intuitive response to someone is often the one that proves to be correct. The unconscious mind filters through variables better (and faster) than we might realize. And intuition gets better with experience. The implication for daters is that time spent dating online might be helping you filter your choices in ways you didn’t realize before. You should trust your instincts more without always second-guessing your choices.

4. Keep an eye on the always-ticking clock.
It might feel like you have unlimited choices when it comes to online matches, but guess what? You do not have unlimited time for dates. It doesn’t matter how many potential matches are out there, you only have so much time to decide which of them is worthy of your romantic attention. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between being picky and becoming paralyzed. Being picky is fine… within reason. It means that you’re following the objective criteria you set for yourself when you made your lists of desirable qualities — but paralysis, on the other hand, is never a good thing.

To avoid this, you must first set some reasonable time limits. If you’re deciding which matches to reply to, give yourself no more than two days to sort through them and decide which ones to throw in the “yes!” pile. The same applies if you’re waffling about whether or not to go on a next date after the first one or two didn’t feel right. At some point, you have to believe you’ve gathered all the information you need to make a decision. Second, let those time limits give you permission to let go once you’ve made your choices. After all, you made the best decisions you could based on the information at hand and now it’s time to move on.

Just remember that staying stuck in limbo forever might be the worst option of all, because not being able to make a choice is actually a choice unto itself.

Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Visit Dave’s website and send your dating questions and comments to him at
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