A Look Inside the eHarmony Love Lab

How does the dating site that's responsible for 44,000 marriages a year do it?

January 08, 2009, 12:19 AM

Feb. 13, 2008 — -- Monica Breeden says she owes her trip down the aisle to eHarmony.com, which claims to be the most successful online dating site.

EHarmony has about 19 million single members looking for love, and a national Harris poll found eHarmony's site is responsible for about 44,000 weddings a year and more than 100,000 babies born so far from the site's cybermatchmaking.

"Whatever they're doing in the background worked for us," said Breeden, who met her husband, Josh, through eHarmony.

EHarmony CEO Greg Waldorf says the site's success is based on much more than luck. "Behind that site is incredible research, incredible science," Waldorf said.

EHarmony uses a mathematical algorithm that picks partners based on a 258-question personality test that asks things like, "Do you have a messy room?" or "Do you get angry easily?"

The questions come from the company's study of 5,000 married couples. The findings show the more alike you and your partner are, the longer your marriage will last.

"Opposites attract, then they attack," said Galen Buckwalter, the vice president of eHarmony Research and Development. "Over time, if you have differences you're going to constantly have to negotiate them. Those differences start to be not so cute."

For the first time, ABC News cameras were allowed inside eHarmony's secret "love lab" in Pasadena, Calif., where researchers watch their subjects' every move hoping to pinpoint what makes good chemistry.

EHarmony scientist Gian Gonzaga studied the body language of nine strangers — the lab "love rats."

"What we're looking for are cues that are linked to sexual desire, like biting or licking the lips, and other cues linked to love, like gesturing with the hands or nodding," Gonzaga said.

Watching subjects Catherine and John, Gonzaga said that they didn't appear to have much chemistry.

"They're not moving around very much," Gonzaga said. "They are both sitting straight up and away from each other."

On the other hand, Catherine and Lee seemed to have a definite spark. In fact, he gave her a kiss on the cheek after their meeting.

"She flipped her hair back right at that moment, and you see how they're moving in unison. As she's moving forward, he's moving forward. That's the kind of mirroring and posturing we see with couples who are getting along very well," Gonzaga said.

Catherine and Lee even made a date after the experiment. "We hit if off totally, completely. I felt like I've known her since I was 2," Lee said.

EHarmony researchers look at a couple's chemistry, or lack thereof, and compares it to questionnaires to further hone eHarmony's techniques. Their research has consistently found that physical attraction is a poor predictor of long-term relationship success.

"When someone has been married for 30 or 40 years, the amount of physical attraction is not what makes them most happy. At that point there, you find how well they get along," Buckwalter said.

Studies on the brain back that up. New York University researchers looked at brain scans during the early stages of love and found major activity in the ventral tegmental, the area responsible for pleasure.

But when they looked at happy couples in long-term relationships, that flurry of activity shifted to the ventral pallidum, an area that controls long-term bonds.

The rare love jackpot happens when both areas of the brain continue to light up well into the twilight years.

It's just that eternal bliss eHarmony is trying to bottle.

Not every customer walks away with a mate, of course, and the company says it doesn't know how many of its couples have since divorced.

The Breedens say the $60 a month they spent to find love was the investment of a lifetime.

"The money and the time were both well spent, absolutely — a bargain, I'd say," Monica Breeden said.

If eHarmony isn't for you, there are hundreds of other dating Web sites to choose from. Match.com rates No. 1 in number of customers and revenue, but eHarmony claims to be responsible for the most marriages.

And eHarmony is hoping to go international. Waldorf just returned from India and China to get a sense of those potentially huge markets. But first the eHarmony researchers would have to create a whole new formula based on those cultures and how they view marriage.

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