It’s every matchmaker’s dream to unite star-crossed lovers just in time for Feb. 14. Like an artist beaming over a completed work, the proverbial Cupid can stand beside the budding romance and proudly take credit for his or her creation. Now the social phenomenon has some science behind it, as researchers have found that matchmaking on Valentine’s Day is more likely to bring Cupid happiness than the people being united.

Socially, the process of matchmaking is ancient. Nearly hardwired into us is a need to demonstrate keen awareness of the creatures around us, proving to others and ourselves that we have a handle on who’s compatible. Researchers from Duke University, Harvard Business School, and others now suggest that demonstrating this awareness is most effective when two people hail from disparate social circles, and that uniting them brings the matchmaker great psychological comfort.

"At some point, most people have made matches between others — like grabbing two strangers by the arm at a party and introducing them to each other — or can think of a friend notorious for their efforts to make introductions," said Lalin Anik, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, in a statement. Anik adds that this behavior is set against a backdrop of online social networks, which make matchmaking not only effortless, but expected.

Finding The Matches

Anik and her colleagues will present the findings from their recent batch of studies, forthcoming in the journal Social Psychological and Personal Science, at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference this Friday. The team will present the results of four separate, but related, experiments that used computer games, surveys, and in-lab interactions designed to investigate how happiness can be maximized through matchmaking.

The first study had subjects pair people up according to one of three sets of requirements: they found two people they thought would be compatible, incompatible, or they were told to sort people by a random measure, in this case, their social security numbers. People who selected compatible couples, whether or not they turned out to be a good match, reported greater happiness than people selecting poor matches or random ones.

Another study used computer games with a similar structure. Subjects saw a target face and three subsequent faces, and were either told to pick the face that seemed most compatible or the one that seemed the least compatible. Echoing the earlier findings, participants enjoyed the experience much more and played for much longer when they were selecting matches rather than failures. Interestingly, Anik and her team found that offering the matchmaking group a monetary incentive actually decreased their enjoyment of the task, something the team took as a challenge to “the rising trend of online social networks providing financial incentives for people to make introductions.”

Finally, the team found that not all matches are made with equal outcomes of happiness. If the person doing the matchmaking wants to increase his or her satisfaction with the experience, the best way to do it is finding two people who would have never otherwise met. The true reward, the team found, was in the importance of the intervention. People who took it upon themselves to fuse two categorically opposite people were far happier than people who joined two people of the same race or from the same place, such as a bookshop or bar.

"There are many reasons why people make matches," Anik explained. "Matchmakers may be proud that they have the social acumen to recognize a social link that others hadn't.” Or they may simply view it as an act of kindness (though, sometimes naively so). Perhaps it also speaks to the power of a person’s ego, as "people enjoy being the key person who made that critical match between newlyweds or between business partners who started a successful venture," Anik added.

Everything In Moderation

The trick, as the team found, was not to go overboard in trying to up-play the opposites-attract card. Sometimes two people simply aren’t right for one another, and their separate social circles could reflect that. But as the concept of dating in the 21st century loses its meaning with every online profile made or ambiguous hook-up indulged, the foresight of the matchmaker becomes ever more valuable.

"The study of matchmaking is especially timely now as social structures, as well as definitions of social ties and friendships, are changing," Anik said. "Our exploration of matchmaking can help people to navigate their increasingly complex social webs."

Source: Anik L, Norton M. Matchmaking promotes happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2014.