The Psychology Behind The Outrage At OKCupid’s User Experiments

OKCupid admits, once again, that it manipulates content in random psychological experiments to see how users react. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DON RYAN
OKCupid admits, once again, that it manipulates content in random psychological experiments to see how users react. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DON RYAN

OKCupid revealed earlier this week that it does more than try to help people find true love; as co-founder Christian Rudder announced in a blog post, the dating site “experiments on human beings!”. Rudder’s post quickly sparked public outrage, illuminating concerns about the way social media sites could potentially use customers’ data to exert control over their lives

Rudder admitted the company does experiment on its users because it “doesn’t really know what it’s doing” and “neither does any other website.” Rudder said companies run tests and experiments on their users to give them a better experience and ultimately better improve their products and services. One experiment linked users up with people who were deemed a bad match — a 30 percent compatibility rate based on OKCupid’s algorithm. OKCupid labeled these bad matches as being 90 percent compatible to see if people could “like” each other even if they had nothing in common.

News of the experiment sparked public outrage, with critics accusing OKCupid of “playing God.” Does altering how someone chooses a potential date overstep ethical and privacy boundaries?

“[Customers] expect companies with web-based to experiment with delivery,” Pamela Rutledge, PhD., psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California told ThinkProgress. “Changing up OKCupid content and offerings is fine; manipulating user-generated content is where ethical questions arise.”


OKCupid’s confession comes just weeks after Facebook was outed for its own experiments. In June, Facebook revealed that it changed some users’ timelines to see how it would affect their mood. Facebook’s goal: to see if a person’s mood could fluctuate based on what is in his or her news feed.

“The biggest difference between OKCupid’s and Facebook’s research is that Facebook’s researchers set up the study according to empirical research standards, creating a control group and measuring before and after, etcetera,” Rutledge said. “OKCupid has just been making changes and evaluating against previous data with no control group” and then applying those results to all of its users.

Both experiments raise questions about when data collection goes too far. When does the information a company aggregates and analyzes go from being fun and useful, yielding better, more convenient services for the customer, to outright creepy?

Companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook collect and report data on all their users. They learn what their users like, sometimes by tracking where they go online or probing their private conversations, so they can entice consumers with the right ads for products that are best for them. That data is also used to make products and services better, so that users don’t have to remember the last sites they visited, passwords or their in-laws’s new address because its all saved on the cloud.

But those conveniences that help people forge relationships and run their lives more smoothly exist in a murky ethical area, one where users are made to sacrifice privacy and autonomy, sometimes without their knowledge or explicit consent. “It is very Big Brother, to manipulate user content without acknowledging the feelings and experience of individual users,” Rutledge said.


Though privacy concerns are mounting in the wake of revelations of massive data collection by the National Security Agency, consumers seem to be OK with companies collecting, tracking and manipulating their data as long as it’s beneficial for their user experience. One recent study found that customers were more comfortable with their personal information being resold if they profited from it — monetarily or through better, more customized services. That tradeoff could become more commonplace as we become more dependent on companies. Already, daily routines are peppered with wearable technology and mobile apps that track everything from your sleep patterns to your favorite bars. Many people sign on to these services without understanding what exactly they are agreeing to.

“I think there is a presumption — a naïve one perhaps — that the companies are acting to help the user achieve their goals rather than the awareness of that it is also the user serving the company goals,” Rutledge said. “Dating is so personal that it’s hard to remember it’s a business.”