By Ana-Isabel Nӧlke (Editor)
Beauty standards are everywhere we look, every day. In these times of photo-shopped images, and social experiments such as the Dove Real Beauty stunt, the detrimental effects of media portrayals are at the forefront of everybody’s minds. There is no doubt that the media, as well as industries such as pornography, have engrained a set of unrealistic standards of what a ‘real woman’ should look like and how a ‘real man’ should behave. I do not want to reiterate a debate that has been going on for decades. Rather, I want to talk about a theory that is closely linked to it and propose that it is not only appearance ideals which are worrying, but also a standardised way of searching for love, which is ultimately affecting the way we approach relationships in general: the McDonaldisation of Society.
The McDonaldisation of Society is the title of a case study by George Ritzer1. Briefly, McDonaldisation means “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant (come) to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world. “ 1. In essence, this suggests that, especially in a globalized world, the way in which McDonalds works and the processes they use can be applied to all aspects of society.
Nowadays, everything needs to be efficient. Everything needs to be done fast, but with the least cost and effort. Think ATMs, drive-thrus, and self-service counters in airports and supermarkets. At the same time, we need to be able to track this efficiency. So, we make things measureable and place focus on the quantities production yields, as well as on how fast processes can be conducted. A BigMac Meal, all-you-can-eat restaurants, and microwavable meals are all examples where quality is traded in favour of quantity, or the speed of getting food on the table. Ritzer calls this ‘calculability.’ Selling more, and faster, becomes more important than the taste of the food itself. Once we have an efficient and measurable process, we make sure that the way in which we deliver the service is standardized and predictable. Who likes risk? If we walk into a McDonalds in a foreign country we know what to expect. The same is true for employees, who are often trained to conduct routine tasks again and again for efficiency’s sake. Everything is clearly structured and controlled. This control permeates all aspects of McDonaldised organizations, especially employees. If every aspect of every process is pre-prepared, pre-defined, and controlled automatically, employees are no longer required to think. Often they are not really needed at all and thus simply replaced by technology.
By now, you can probably see the flaw in this system. Making the world more rational and efficient removes the human aspect. In an efficient system, there is no room for human thought, which can, paradoxically, lead to inefficiencies1. Too much calculability can lead to low-quality products; too much efficiency can create delays as consumers need to learn new technologies. If you have ever stood in line for a self-service machine at 7pm in a Tesco’s supermarket, you will know what I mean. Imagine now what happens if an employee needs to conduct a task that he was not used to doing before. His actions become “unpredictable” and, most likely, inefficient.
What, however, does all of this have to do with love?
I would argue that love is one aspect of life which has been McDonaldised most. More and more it strikes me that in our society ‘love’ has become a commodity. In order to illustrate this, I want to talk about the second most common place for relationships to start2. A place where a third of US couples married between 2005 and 2012 met3;4: Online Dating Sites.
Let’s look at the three underlying services online dating sites offer: access, communication and matching5. Via online dating sites every person with access to a computer has accessto a vast pool of potential romantic partners. Access incorporates the promise that one will be able to encounter and evaluate, allegedly, like-minded individuals. Communication then stands for the opportunity to interact with only the most promising users, evaluating them to see whether they are interesting enough for a face-to-face meeting. Lastly, online dating sites promise a service that seems to be the solution to the biggest of all problems: finding a suitable partner. Sites such as Match.com or OK!Cupid advertise their mathematical algorithms, capable of finding partners that match ones personal preferences. A dream; come true.
These characteristics, however, essentially make online dating sites a marketplace, where “love” is sold to, and bought by, a vast majority of the population. Going back to McDonaldisation, it becomes obvious that for many people these sites are the most efficient way of meeting others. In times of hard labour and limited places to socialize, I mean, 9-5 jobs and a bar at every corner, dating sites offer the comfort of a hypermarket of potential partners at the click of a button. But what does this efficiency mean? For someone like myself, for whom the vast range of choice in the cereal aisle at the local supermarket poses a big challenge, it is a daunting prospect. People do not know what they want. Therefore, we rely on the most time-efficient, least thought-involving way: observable characteristics such as looks, education, and, for the most part stereotypes of what we think a person will be like. Let us disregard at this point that one third of all photos on online dating sites are “fudged”.6 This overwhelming choice then causes an assessment mind-set that leads us to commoditize others5. We create a controlled environment, in which we can narrow down our preferred choices by ticking a few boxes and communicate only with the “crème de la crème” according to a narrow set of pre-defined standards7.
At the same time, the sheer amount of profiles available leads us to become unrealistically picky. We have full control over who we would like to meet, what he or she is supposed to like and look like. Supply creates demand. The over-supply on dating sites allows us to develop unrealistic expectations of the people “on offer.” At the same time, this causes some sort of predictability, as our preferences will ultimately result in fairly standardized selection of matches that fit our prescribed expectations.
Having an assessment mind-set further causes us to sit in that first face-to-face meeting with the knowledge that 10 other messages from potential prospects are waiting in our inbox. That is, of course, after we have swallowed the disappointment that our date did not meet our previously set expectations. We are therefore more prone to jump from one person to another to find the “perfect match.” We conduct a benefit-cost analysis and go for the option with the highest gain. We embark on an endless search for the perfect partner without stopping to get to know the person in front of us. Interestingly, studies have shown that disregarding observable characteristics when getting to know someone actually creates higher satisfaction levels8.
The majority of people alive believe in soul mates9. The problem with this is that people who believe in “the one” are much more likely to end a relationship when it faces problems10. People who believe that relationships grow and need to be worked on are more likely to lead a happy, long life as a couple. Philosopher Alain Badiou writes in his book, In Praise of Love,11 that dating sites structure their offer in a way that is a quasi insurance policy for love: seemingly fail-proof, without the pain of rejection. The problem is that love and pain go hand in hand and no relationship will be free of arguments and disagreements.
I would be amiss if I did not mention that there is one recent study that ascribes higher marital satisfaction to couples that have met online3. I have ventured into online dating, albeit without much patience. I do not dispute that online dating has made the world a better place for people who don’t have time to go out, or for those whose dating pool is naturally restricted. I do believe, however, that this industry has led to a consumerisation of love, much along the lines of Ritzer’s McDonaldisation. Online dating is a billion-dollar industry that is growing despite a world-wide recession. It capitalizes on a fundamental human motivation: the need to create a deep connection to others12. It is efficient, calculable, predictable and standardized; and it is definitely an example of the Irrationality of Rationality.
Love is the zenith of irrationality, but it seems as though nowadays irrationality and risk are just unacceptable. Maybe it is time to sit back, have a look at those profiles on Ok!Cupid and think about our own standards of “assessing” others.
- Ritzer, George. "The “McDonaldization” of society." Journal of American Culture 6.1 (1983): p.100-107.
- Jeffries, S. (2012, February). Is online dating destroying love?. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/06/is-online-dating-destroying-love?newsfeed=true
- Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G. C., Ogburn, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(25).
- Magid, L. (2013). A Third of Recently Married Couples Met Online and They're More Satisfied and Less Likely To Split-Up. Forbes Online. March 6th, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrymagid/2013/06/03/a-third-of-recently-married-couples-met-online-and-theyre-more-satisfied-and-less-likely-to-split-up/
- Finkel, Eli J., et al. "Online Dating A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13.1 (2012): 3-66.
- Hancock, J. T. and Toma, C. (2009). Putting Your Best Face Forward: The Accuracy of Online Dating Photographs. Journal of Communication. (29)2, pp. 367-386.
- Pompey, J. (2013, May). Is Online Dating Destroying How We Date? Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-pompey/is-online-dating-destroying-how-we-date_b_3285680.html
- Bargh, J. A., McKenna, K. Y., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (2002). Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the “true self” on the Internet. Journal of Social Issues, 58(1), 33–48.
- Nicholson J. (2012) Why you shouldn’t believe in Soul Mates. Psychology Today Online. July 9, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-attraction-doctor/201207/why-you-shouldnt-believe-in-soul-mates
- Knee, C. R., and Bush, A. (2008). Relationship beliefs and their role in relationship initiation. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.), The handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 471-485). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
- Badiou, A. (2012). In praise of love. The New Press.
- Baumeister, R. F. & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, pp. 497-529