How Our Behaviour Changes Through Dating Apps
At this time and age it is most likely you have heard of dating apps, at least in passing, if you have not already tried them out yourself. You may be familiar with Tinder, Hinge, Bumble or even Coffee Meets Bagel, the offer is overwhelming.
Using a Dating App: Motivations and Effects
All these apps were designed to allow us instant access to other bachelors in our area by the simple mechanism of swiping right on the faces we deem attractive, and left on those which we don’t. In theory, this sounds like an easy way to find a suitable partner. However, Hinge has reported that 81% of its users have not found a long-lasting relationship (Beck, 2016).
It is interesting to take a look at what draws us to dating apps in the first place. In a study by Sumter, Vandenbosch and Ligtenberg (2017), researchers took a closer look at what motivates us to use dating apps. They found that users have a variety of motivations when engaging with these apps, including love, casual sex, and self-worth validation.
It is with this last motivation that users may find that dating apps can lead to psychological distress and anxiety. As demonstrated by Holtzhausen et al. (2020), continuous use of social networking sites (SNSs) as means of seeking validation and comparison with others increases the pain of rejection. By putting ourselves “out there” on dating apps, we are welcoming disappointment and may therefore feel as if we have failed (Her & Timmermans, 2020). So why do we keep coming back to them?
Behaviour and Reinforcements
The reason may lie in the way that these apps are designed. The simple swiping motion opens the door to countless possible matches, giving the feeling of instant reward.
In order to reinforce swiping behaviour, dating apps make use of intermittent reinforcement. Just like a slot machine, dating apps aid themselves by presenting users with randomly placed reinforcers – a match. This form of reinforcement has been shown to work best when shaping new behaviours, since it produces longer-lasting habits (DeRusso et al., 2010). The idea being that the learner does not know when the reinforcement will appear. In the case of the slot machine, one can pull on the lever countless times before getting a reward. But simply knowing that the possibility of a reward exists makes one continue to pull on the lever since the next pull could be a jackpot. In a similar way, dating apps encourage their users to keep swiping in the hope that the next profile may be the love of their life.
We can take this behavioural analysis a step further by looking more closely at what happens inside our brains when we engage with dating apps. The secret lies in dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory consolidation (Arias-Carrión et al., 2010). Dopamine fires when we are faced with the opportunity to receive a reward, incentivising us to repeat behaviours that have previously rewarded us. In the case of dating apps, dopamine fires whenever you get a match.
Moving Forward: Dating Apps and the Pandemic
It appears that dating apps are built to encourage habitual engagement from their users. However, what does the future hold for them? Over the past year, due to the pandemic, dating has increasingly moved towards online platforms. This move online has helped formalise what was formerly thought of as a ‘game’ (Hobbs, Owen & Gerber, 2016).
During this time, big online dating platforms such as Tinder have modified their platform, providing users with greater opportunities to express themselves (Shearing, 2021). Changes include the possibility of starting up a conversation with another user without a need to match with them. At a glance, it appears that the dating app has decided to adopt a more “realistic” approach to dating.
In an interview with the BBC, Tinder’s CEO Jim Lanzone explained that dating during lockdown has ceased to be linear. He explained that Tinder users were no longer following the well-known path of “swiping, matching, meeting for a date, having a relationship and getting married” (Shearing, 2021). Nowadays, we are getting to know each other better through the app by engaging in video calls, and when finally meeting up, going on adventures, as opposed to sitting down for coffee.
Helen Fisher (2020), a biological anthropologist who is Chief Science Adviser for Match.com, advocates for the addition of video calls. According to her analysis, this change of behaviour has actually removed many pressures that came with traditional dating. For instance, dating over video call removed the money debate. We no longer need to wonder whether we are expected to pay or to split the bill, letting us relax and enjoy the other person’s company. Another example lies with the sexual expectancies of a date. Once again we are free to relax instead of asking ourselves what the night holds. Like Fisher puts it, “You might have some sexy banter during a video chat but real sex is off the table.”
So what can we expect from dating apps moving forward? It is safe to say that dating apps are here to stay. Even if we don’t always find “the one”, dating apps still provide a good space where you can meet new people and share new experiences. The shift towards online dating has certainly helped in promoting dating apps and it will be very interesting to see how these new attitudes develop with time.
Arias-Carrión, O., Stamelou, M., Murillo-Rodríguez, E. et al. (2010). "Dopaminergic reward system: a short integrative review". Int Arch Med 3(24). https://doi.org/10.1186/1755-7682-3-24
Beck, J. (2016). “The Rise of Dating-App Fatigue”. The Atlantic. Accessed via: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/10/the-unbearable-exhaustion-of-dating-apps/505184/
DeRusso, A. L., Fan, D., Gupta, J., Shelest, O., Costa, R. M. and Yin, H. H. (2010). “Instrumental uncertainty as a determinant of behavior under interval schedules of reinforcement”. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 4(1). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2010.00017
Fisher, H. (2020). “How Coronavirus Is Changing the Dating Game for the Better”. The New York Times. Accessed via: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/07/well/mind/dating-coronavirus-love-relationships.html
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Holtzhausen, N., Fitzgerald, K.,Thakur, I. et al. (2020) “Swipe-based dating applications use and its association with mental health outcomes: a cross-sectional study”. BMC Psychol 8(22). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-020-0373-1
Rochat, L., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Aboujaoude, E. and Khazaal, Y. (2019). “The psychology of ‘swiping’: A cluster analysis of the mobile dating app Tinder”. Journal of Behavioral Addictions 8(4). https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.8.2019.58
Shearing, H. (2021). “Tinder boss says Covid changed how we swipe right”. BBC News. Accessed via: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-57557180
Sumter, S. R, Vandenbosch and L., Ligtenberg, L. (2017). “Love me Tinder: Untangling emerging adults’ motivations for using the dating application Tinder”, Telematics and Informatics 34(1).https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2016.04.009