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The Dating Game

What Abraham’s servant—the hero of this week’s parasha—and modern science can teach us about finding love

Liel Leibovitz
October 29, 2010
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; billboard photo: Flickr/schmalex; illustration of Isaac at well: Wikimedia Commons)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; billboard photo: Flickr/schmalex; illustration of Isaac at well: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s Torah portion brings us one of the Bible’s most famous instances of a successful shidduch, or matchmaking. An aged Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and the servant, not knowing how to go about that most delicate of assignments, pleads heavenwards.

“Behold,” he says to God, “I am standing by the water fountain, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water. And it will be, that the maiden to whom I will say, ‘Lower your pitcher and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master.”

The servant has good reason to pray; without a bit of divine intervention, his method of selecting a spouse amounts to little more than a raffle, a random manner of picking one candidate from a pool of many, irrespective of her qualities or qualifications.

To us moderns, nothing could be more terrifying. In an important respect, the history of the last several centuries has been the story of the struggle against uncertainty, a war waged everywhere from operating rooms to bedrooms. Science after science, one discipline after another, all geared toward the same goal: to make known what was vague, to make clear what was shrouded in mystery. Most likely, then, if we had the chance to chat with the bewildered servant, we would have told him all about psychology and its personality-analysis studies, about the most recent economic decision-making models, even about the advanced algorithms now applied in the service of the online dating industry. We would have told the gentle soul that next time his master entrusted him with the subtle task of matchmaking, he might want to consider other, more precise methods for identifying an optimal partner.

We might say all that and more. But we, alas, would be wrong.

To test the validity of the servant’s methodology, I turned briefly to those experts entrusted with putting such questions to the test. A whirlwind survey of recent scholarship convinced me beyond doubt: When it comes to finding that special someone, you would do just as well living on a prayer.

Consider, for example, the study conducted by Pai-Lu Wu and Wen-Bin Chiou, two Taiwanese researchers who observed the online dating habits of 128 subjects. Participants were asked to browse one of three batches of profiles: one containing 90 profiles of possible matches, another with 60 profiles, and a small one with only 30 profiles. The results were rather clear. The larger the pool of candidates, the more time participants spent browsing around; and the more time they spent browsing, the less likely they were to focus on the best possible matches and abandon the other, less suitable ones. “We argue that more search options lead to less selective processing by reducing users’ cognitive resources, distracting them with irrelevant information, and reducing their ability to screen out inferior options,” Wu and Chiou wrote. Call it the kid-in-the-candy store syndrome: The more options we have, the less likely we are to choose well.

A slightly stronger, and more surprising, assertion of the same idea comes from another recent study, titled “Less Is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, or Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt.” Conducted by Michael I. Norton of Harvard, Dan Ariely of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Jeana H. Frost of Boston University, the study begins by quoting the lyrics to “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service: “Everything looks perfect from far away.”

The scientists can back it up. Their 294 subjects were asked to complete a survey on an online dating website and then asked to choose which of two given individuals they would like better, one about whom they knew much or one about whom they knew little. The result? The study showed that “more information about others leads to less liking because of the tendency of dissimilarity to cascade over the course of information acquisition. We first show that although people are correct in intuiting the real-world positive relationship between familiarity and liking across their set of acquaintances, they mistakenly believe that learning more about any one individual will lead to greater liking.”

The authors, of course, are not suggesting that to know someone is to dislike them, although that, to my mind, would be a rather pithy definition of family. What they are saying is that when it comes to selecting a mate, ambiguity is a valuable tool. The less we know a potential partner, the more likely we are to unleash our imagination: Tell us nothing about the man we met online or the woman we’re about to date, and we’ll imagine the sharpest wit, the most fascinating life, the most charming personality. Feed us details, and the magic fades away. The more we know, the less likely we are to let ourselves—observe the language that we use!—take the plunge, throw caution to the wind, fall in love.

Of course, none of this holds once we actually find the man or woman of our dreams. One of the most fascinating findings of the study by Norton, Ariely and Frost was that a more detailed profile would likely attract fewer but more compatible candidates; once we’ve clicked, learning more is all we want to do. But in general, ignorance, empirically speaking, is bliss.

Abraham’s servant, of course, grasped all that intuitively. He vowed to engage the first girl who offered him water. The first girl who offered him water was Rebecca. And we all know how that worked out in the end.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.