Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My First (but By No Means Last) Experience with Online Dating

When my brain isn’t working, it’s a good thing I have a dick to think with. Case in point, some time ago I decided to give internet dating a go. I signed up on a site, then spent the next several hours agonizing over what kind of public face I wanted to display. For instance, would I come across as a snob if I said I read The New Yorker, and if I did let this particular cat out of the bag would I need to disclose that I wasn’t actually a subscriber but only bought it as a plane read?

And what if my soulmate-in-waiting pressed me on this? Then I would have to reveal that I’d only flown once this year, which meant my Scientific American reading was way down, as well.

Online dating is definitely a game of chess, calculating at least four moves ahead, using the best information available to anticipate a future that you have deluded yourself into thinking you can control. The part of the brain responsible is the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reason that separates us from those who believe that Fox News is true and other lower life forms.

But there are limits in our capacity to think things though, which I discovered once I started checking out the available women on this particular dating site. Just about all of them were very attractive. They looked after themselves, kept themselves fit, and did interesting things. Clearly, these women had no room in their lives for losers. What they wanted to hear from me was something along the lines of my love of the smell of the freshly oiled teak of my sun deck as I sat overlooking my private ocean while I broke down my last triathlon on the prototype iDrool that my good buddy Steve Jobs asked me to try out as a personal favor to him.

Fortunately, this culled most of the herd for me, but there were still way too many candidates to choose from. On one hand, I needed to come across as desirable as possible to the whole rest of the pack. On the other, I needed the equivalent of a prick like Simon Cowell to give me four finalists. My profile (which I have fictionalized here) was finally starting to take shape. First, the black box warning:

I'm self-employed, which means my boss is a cheap bastard and my employee a lazy no-good shit.

Then the catnip:

Silence is golden, so is great conversation. Sharing both with the right individual is priceless.

Then my set-up:

I'd love to prepare one of my gourmet pizzas for you ...

And finally my Simon Cowell eliminator:

... while we sip wine and listen to Einstein's iPod.

Perfect, I decided. More people on this planet have "Antarctica" listed as their place of birth than would be able to get what I was driving at by Einstein's iPod. Even I didn't know what the fuck I meant by Einstein's iPod.

It didn't matter. All I had to do was read through the profiles of some likely candidates, contact one or two at a time over the next several weeks, indicate my interest in them, and invite them to check out my profile. The first one who didn't impale herself on my Simon Cowell eliminator, assuming she was interested in me, would be my next coffee date. Let the games begin.

I went to the profiles only to discover my prefrontal cortex refused to cooperate. Shopping for women online is not the same as shopping for kitchen appliances online, or rather, yes it is. I may tell myself that I want a pasta maker that simply works on the same principle as an old-fashioned wringer washing machine, but ultimately I am going to choose the model that fires up my ventral tegmental area (VTA), the dopamine-sensitive region in the midbrain that mediates pleasure and reward.

While the thinking parts of my brain are weighing up customer reviews and performance specs and price points, my VTA is getting a hard-on over the shiniest looking appliance on the page. Through a complex series of brain signaling, the VTA shuts down the amygdala, associated with fear (which the thinking parts of the brain really need to be paying attention to) and starts negotiating with the prefrontal cortex.

Never mind price and practicality, says the VTA in effect. Get the bright shiny one. In a straightforward negotiation, the prefrontal cortex simply abdicates its authority to the VTA. (Yes, get the bright shiny one.) In a more complicated transaction, the prefrontal cortex spins somersaults rationalizing the choice already made by the VTA. (Yes, the bright shiny one is far better value for my money, even though it costs twice as much as the others. Not only that, it's far more efficient, notwithstanding the fact that three reviewers have noted they had trouble anchoring the object to the counter.)

Hopefully, when you unpack your shiny new pasta maker, the handle doesn't fall off. It probably doesn't matter, anyway. You'll use the thing just once, then exile it to the same dark corner of your lower pantry as your way cool retro bread machine.

So my best-laid plans for choosing a woman online were doomed from the start. This is why men get boners. Women, too, in a manner of speaking. The prefrontal cortex is simply incapable of making up its mind. Which woman? The tree surgeon who has just finished reading Joseph Campbell or the martial arts black belt who teaches drama at a community college? Or the woman with no obvious interests who enjoys her "tomatoe" plant?

As I said, good thing I have a dick to think with.


Louise said...

One word: Craigslist!

heather said...

John, you slay me...

John McManamy said...

Thanks, Heather. Glad you enjoyed it.

Deborra said...

I used an online dating site to find my current partner a week shy of one year ago. We are doing beautifully; live together now. We both decided, when writing our profiles, to be as transparent about ourselves as we could manage. Our profiles only needed to appeal to one person, someone who appreciated us just as we are. And that is exactly what happened.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Deborra. My warm congratulations. It almost happened to me, too. I'm not giving up. Stay tuned ...