Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

Why Do People Match Others Together?

By Oren Shapira, Alex Shaw

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This old cliché may be truer now than ever. Whether you’re an MBA student, a programmer, or a teacher, it is key to socialize with other people from your field. After all, that bearded guy who laughed at your joke at happy hour might be just the guy who will know the person who will hire you for your dream job, putting you one step away from fulfilling your purpose. Clearly networking can be beneficial, but have you ever considered why that guy would even bother making this connection?

One reason that we network with people is we often assume that, given the chance, people will want to make useful connections between us and other people and opportunities. In some cases, it’s pretty clear why someone might make such a connection, for example if they work at a company that generously incentivizes employees for referring successful candidates. However, why do people matchmake in other cases where there are no apparent tangible benefits?

Image: © 2013 CPABC

A new paper by postdoctoral fellow Lalin Anik from Duke University and Professor Michael Norton from Harvard suggests that at least part of the reason why people connect other people to each other is that matchmaking simply makes them happier and is rewarding for its own sake. First, the authors conducted a survey, finding that people who view themselves as matchmakers tend to report higher well-being than those who don’t view themselves this way. Interestingly, this relationship held regardless of the type of matchmaking – setting up dates, friends, and professional connections were all related to greater happiness. The authors next set out to more rigorously explore the link between matchmaking and happiness in the lab. They randomly assigned participants to act as matchmakers (matchmakers identified pairs of fellow participants who would get along well) or complete a control task, and found that only matchmakers reported being happier at the end of the study than at the outset. 

But perhaps most interesting was the third study. The authors designed this study based on a long tradition of research on intrinsic motivation, showing that when people are paid for doing an activity they enjoy doing to begin with, this external incentive can actually make them less willing to do the activity they previously did for free. Would that also be true for matchmaking? To investigate this question, the authors presented participants with pictures of people’s faces and randomly assigned them to match the pictures either based on how well the people in the pictures would get along (matchmaker condition) or how physically similar they looked (control condition). They also assigned participants to either get paid a bonus for each trial they completed (paid condition) or not (free condition). The results showed that paying participants a bonus in the matchmaker condition made them complete fewer trials compared to the free condition. In contrast, in the control condition (a task the researchers did not expect to be intrinsically rewarding), paying participants a bonus for each trial made them complete more trials than when the task was free. These results suggest that matchmaking is indeed an intrinsically rewarding activity that people naturally enjoy.

Why is matchmaking such a rewarding, happiness-inducing activity? The researchers propose a number of possible answers. For example, making connections between people may make matchmakers feel good about themselves, signal their status to others, or may reflect altruistic motivations to promote other people’s happiness. Whatever the underlying motivations turn out to be, these findings nicely add to the growing literature on the benefits of prosocial behavior for the self, such as Professor Dunn’s work on giving money and happiness and Professor Yeager’s work on prosocial purpose and school achievements. Thus, when people help you, they are also helping themselves. But don’t let that take any of your gratitude – instead, pay it forward! Even if you feel that you don’t know that many people, you probably have at least one friend who could benefit at this moment from being connected to someone else in your network. With just one email or phone call, you can make a connection that would push everyone involved one step or one leap closer to their purpose.


Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being

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