Belief Watch: eHarmony's Algorithm for Mr. Right

Let's say you want to get married and you're thinking of joining an Internet dating site. Wouldn't you want that site to be just a little bit picky? Wouldn't you want it to eliminate the creepy already-marrieds—and the pathological liars? Wouldn't you be grateful to meet someone who shared your values on children, money, education and God? Isn't that what your mother wants?

eHarmony, which has had 20 million users since its founding in 2000, promotes itself as the dating service your mother would approve of. Its implied promise: that in this world of hookups, eHarmony can get you hitched. Lately, though, the company has faced a public relations crisis, triggered both by a competitor's clever advertisements and by a lawsuit charging that eHarmony discriminates against gays and lesbians. Founded by a 72-year-old Christian self-help author named Neil Clark Warren, the dating site requires users to answer 256 questions about personality traits and values. Then, with the help of a complex algorithm, it matches people with much in common. Warren's philosophy is as comforting as mashed potatoes: "It is so much better to love someone who is a lot like you," he told National Review in 2005. A company spokeswoman boasts that 236 eHarmony users marry every day.

Among the young and the single—especially those with Blue State values—wariness about eHarmony runs high. For one thing, there's the association with Dr. James Dobson. Warren published several of his books under the imprint of Dobson's Focus on the Family and then, when he was first flogging eHarmony, he did it largely via Dobson's radio show. "James Dobson … did more to help us get started than any other person," Warren told NPR's Terry Gross in 2005. Because of Warren's strong evangelical bona fides, the impression persists that eHarmony is a dating service for Christians—even though the company has severed its ties with Dobson's group, and eHarmony "has never been limited to a Christian audience or any particular subset of the population," says a company lawyer.

Trickier (from a PR point of view), eHarmony rejects about 20 percent of its applicants and doesn't fully explain why. The Internet is abuzz with possible explanations, and last year a savvy competitor called capitalized on these suspicions. In television ads, seemingly eligible young people face the camera and complain that they returned their library books on time or were only occasionally depressed—and still were rejected by eHarmony. These ads drew a bright line: is for people who believe in love and romance; eHarmony is for squares who follow an indecipherable set of rules. An eHarmony spokeswoman explains that the site rejects people who are underage, already married or dishonest—as well as those whose answers raise flags about their mental health.

In June, a California judge will hear a plaintiffs' motion for class certification in a case that accuses eHarmony of discrimination against gays and lesbians. eHarmony does not reject gays—it simply doesn't accept them: the only choices on the site are "man seeking woman" or "woman seeking man." A company lawyer explains that eHarmony makes matches based on unique scientific research into what makes heterosexual unions work; it hasn't done the same kind of work on gay unions, though it doesn't rule out such research in the future. While this explanation may be true, it also sidesteps the real problem. eHarmony was founded eight years ago by a conservative Christian who had a passionate interest in the benefits of shared values in heterosexual marriage—and he sold this formula within the Christian world. (Warren was not available for comment.) Today, the company desires to reap the economies of scale offered by a mainstream clientele, and in the wider world, shared values are not as easy to compute.

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