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The cover story in this month's Atlantic is "How Do I Love Thee," by Lori Gottlieb. Here is the tag:

A growing number of Internet dating sites are relying on academic researchers to develop a new science of attraction. A firsthand report from the front lines of an unprecedented social experiment.

While interesting enough, Ms Gottlieb's piece strikes a somewhat underwhelming note after such an organ blast. "A growing number" turns out to be three. As for "academic researchers," I was more than a little dismayed to find Dr Helen Fisher, of Chemistry.com, has built her site's questionnaire on the familiar Myers-Briggs personality assessment test. Dr Fisher may be right to correlate each of the MBTI's four poles - Extroversion/Introversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling and Judgment/Perceiving - to a specific hormone or neurotransmitter, but so long as subjects are presented with the test's grossly ambiguous questions, the results are destined to be oracular rather than empirical.

By chance, the very next thing that I picked up was Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, a book that has languished in my pile for a disgraceful stretch of months. One of the very first things that Ms Ehrenreich has to do in the job hunt that forms the book's narrative spine is to take a Myers-Briggs text. This, she finds,

is marginally craftier than the [Wagner Enneagram Personality Style Scales], in that I am not asked simply to choose the attributes that fit me, but am given somewhat more roundabout questions, such as "Do you usually get along better with (A) imaginative people, or (B) realistic people?" Once again, the only sensible approach is a random one. Do I usually show my feelings freely or keep my feelings to myself? Hmm, depends on how socially acceptable those feelings might be. If it's a desire to inflict grievous bodily harm on some person currently in my presence - well, no. When I go somewhere for the day, would I rather plan what I will do and when, or "just go"? Again, it's somewhat different for a court appearance than for a trip to the mall. I race through the test with the mad determination of a monkey that's been given a typewriter and assigned to generate Shakespeare's oeuvre, hoping that some passably coherent individual emerges.

Having fiddled with the MBTI myself, I conclude that its predictive force will increase as the subject approaches language strictly as a utility. Such people are unlikely to be faced with Ms Ehrenreich's dilemmas; they'll see "going somewhere for the day" as a spot of vacation, and they'll have no trouble writing off "imaginative" people as unrealistic. For more nuanced individuals - writers especially, perhaps - the test is all good for only one thing: identifying abnormal constitutions. At the beginnin of her piece, Ms Gottlieb is told by Neil Clark Warren, MD, head of eHarmony.com, that his service has been unable to provide her with any matches because

You're too bright. You're too thoughtful. The biggest thing you've got to do when you're gifted like you are is to be patient.

Thanks, doc.

I don't mean to badmouth online dating services. I don't happen to know anybody who has actually found love, long-term or otherwise, through such a service, but then I don't get around much, and most of my friends are, well, like Ms Gottlieb. But Chemistry and eHarmony seem to operate on premises just as phoney as the hurdles in Ms Ehrenreich's fruitless search for a PR job. The point of tests like the MBTI is to weed out the oddballs. If corporations are less inclined than ever to leave this weeding to prospective employees themselves - Ms Ehrenreich notes that more and more large companies are running credit checks, which sounds like a great way to keep the unemployed unemployed - then the dating services probably aren't too far behind. eHarmony's Galen Buckwalter notes, "I don't think we'll be relying on self-report twenty years from now." What's that supposed to mean? In the end, a would-be suitor at Match.com is no different from a Human Resources staffer: both are in the market for a desirable commodity but hamstrung by incurious caution. Both appear to assume that there isn't enough time to get to know anyone the old-fashioned way. 


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