Each week for the past six years, The Washington Post has been sending out strangers on dinner dates, and then writing it up in a popular magazine feature, called Date Lab. The results range from sweet to disastrous. So what exactly is it that sparks chemistry — or doesn't — between two people?
It turns out that matchmaking is not actually a science. In fact, a few years ago, the matchmakers at Date Lab decided to let a monkey pick that week's couple. The date turned out really well — better than a lot of dates arranged by humans.
"I think I'm better than a monkey. The monkey did a good job though," says Christina Antoniades, Date Lab's head matchmaker. She pairs up couples based on their responses to a quirky online questionnaire.
"We ask them for a lot of their likes and dislikes, what they do in their spare time, what their interests are. We ask them who they think their type is."
When Date Lab sent Shelly Smith on a blind date a few months ago, she says she got just what she asked for in terms of physical appearance.
"I had put the Brawny paper towel man as my dream man. So sure enough, this tall red-headed guy walks in, I'm like, oh, I don't even have to guess, he's totally for me."
The tall red-headed guy was Brian Fitzgerald.
"We had great time, probably talked for 90 percent, ate for 10 percent," says Fitzgerald.
The morning after the date, Date Lab reporters interview the daters over the phone to see how it went. They always ask about chemistry. Both Smith and Fitzgerald say they had chemistry on that first date.
"Chemistry, from an academic standpoint, you could have one explanation, but from a romantic explanation, it almost is the same thing," says Fitzgerald. "It's watching two agents interact."
Smith also puts it in terms of a chemical reaction: "Each person's got to have certain components, and either those components click, and 'Poof,' there's your love potion number nine, or those components don't click."
For Smith and Fitzgerald, things clicked on that first date. Eventually though, the chemistry fizzled. But occasionally, when Date Lab puts two people together, there is an intense chemical reaction... intensely bad.
Years ago, on one date the daters hated each other so much they both rated the night a zero, on a scale of one to five. But in the annals of bad dates, that one may have been topped by the date Jack Gray went on last October.
"You know, I didn't have high expectations, but I figured it would be fun, and the Washington Post was generous enough to pay for our meal," says Gray.
On paper, Gray and his date had some things in common. For example, they both mentioned they liked horses.
"Yeah, I think she connects better with a horse," says Gray, laughing. "Her communication skills were zero."
After 25 or 30 minutes of tense conversation, she got up to go to the bathroom. Gray waited at the table. And waited.
"I figured when she didn't come back in ten minutes I was pulling the plug. I sent a waitress in there to look for her, but she said, 'No, didn't find anyone.'"
The woman had slipped out of the restaurant, without saying anything. She declined to be interviewed for this story, but told The Washington Post, "He was just completely and totally and 100 percent not anything that I would be interested in."
The people behind Date Lab say there's about a 40 percent success rate — if success is wanting to go on another date with the person. But there are also some really successful dates — dates that maybe make the whole experiment worthwhile. In 2010, Date Lab set up Anna Russell on a blind date with Daniel Zielaski.
"We just had a blast," says Zielaski. "I didn't want that night to end. It was like we were in Vegas. Time was just flying by."
They stayed out so late on that first date, they both had to call in sick to work the next day. A few days later, they went on date number two.
"I don't know if there was one moment, that early, that I said to myself, 'This is the person I want to be with forever.' But I certainly said to myself, 'This is the person I want to be with.' I mean, if every day could be like this, why wouldn't you want to be in that situation every day?"
Anna Russell is now Anna Zielaski. The two got married in June in Missoula, where they are both now studying at the University of Montana. So far, Date Lab has engineered more than 300 dates. That's led to a total of three weddings, minus one divorce. Christina Antoniades, who's been working for Date Lab since the beginning, says one thing she's learned is that people don't always know what they want in a partner.
"We do have a lot of people who say I want tall, dark and handsome. And I always am thinking, that maybe that shouldn't be a criteria."
[Music: "Just The Two Of Us (Original Song by Grover Washington)" by DJ Deckstream from Music Castle]