Fittingly, it was Warren’s family, not academia, that piqued his interest in romantic compatibility. “When my de along, that was a big pivot in my life in thinking about how do two people get together,” he told me. “I started reading in the literature and realizing what a big chance they had of not having a satisfying marriage. I started trying to look into it.”
Soon he began a private practice of couples therapy-with a twist. “People have always thought, wrongly, that psychotherapy is a place to go deal with problems,” he said. “So when a couple would come in, I’d say, ‘Tell me how you fell in love. Tell me the funniest thing that’s happened in your marriage.’ If you want to make a relationship work, don’t talk about what you find missing in it! ”
Warren is a big proponent of what he likes to call “folksy wisdom.” One look at the shelves in his office confirms this. “I’ve been reading this little book about the Muppets-you know, Jim Henson,” he said. “And I’ve been reading another book about Mister Rogers. I mean, Mister Rogers was brilliant beyond belief! He got a hold of concepts so thoroughly that he could transmit them to six-year-old kids! Do you know how much you have to get a hold of a concept to transmit it simply? His idea of simple-but-profound has had a profound influence on me.”
The basis of eHarmony’s matching system also sounds simple but profound. Differences are like debts you owe. It’s all right to have a few differences, as long as you have plenty of equity in your account.”
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He leaned in and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mister Rogers and Jim Henson,” Warren continued, “they got a hold of the deep things of life and were able to put them out there. So that’s what we want to do with our products. We want to put them out there in a way that you’d say, ‘This is common sense. This seems right, this seems like it would work.’ Our idea of broad-based compatibility, I put it out there in front of you. Does that seem right?”
Whether or not it seems right on an intuitive level is almost beside the point. After all, eHarmony’s selling point, its very brand identity, is its scientific compatibility system. That’s where Galen Buckwalter comes in.
A vice president of research and development for the company, Buckwalter is in charge of recruiting what he hopes will be twenty to twenty-five top relationship researchers away from academia-just as he was lured away by Warren nine years ago
A former psychology graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary (his dissertation was titled “Neuropsychological Factors Affecting Survival in Malignant Glioma Patients Treated with Autologous Stimulated Lymphocytes”), Buckwalter had become an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, where he was studying the effects of hormones on cognition, when he got the call from Warren.
“Neil knew I lived and breathed research, and he had this idea to try to develop some empirically based model to match people,” Buckwalter said when I visited him at his office at eHarmony. He wore a black T-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, and had a hairstyle reminiscent of Einstein’s. “He wasn’t necessarily thinking, over the Internet-maybe a storefront operation like Great Expectations.” Relationships weren’t Buckwalter’s area, but he welcomed the challenge. “A problem is a problem, and relationships are a good problem,” he said. “In the research context, it’s certainly an endlessly fascinating question.”