I have previously written about the pros and cons of online dating, as well as people's motivations for using mobile dating apps and the potential addictive qualities of those apps. In this post, I am going to discuss one of the problems that researchers have long suggested plagues online daters: too much choice.
One of the great benefits of online dating is that it gives singles access to many more potential mates than they would encounter in their offline lives. This is one of the main advantages of these websites and apps. However, this same advantage can also turn into a disadvantage due to what psychologist Barry Schwartz has termed "the paradox of choice."
The paradox of choice creates two problems. First, the more choices we have, the harder it is to decide. If you're shopping for jeans, and there are only three styles of jeans, you would try them all on, decide which looked better, and make a quick decision. With 30 types of jeans, it becomes a lot more difficult to choose.
Now you might think, "Sure, it's more work to try on 30 pairs of jeans, but with so many choices, I'm more likely to find a really great pair." It's true that you're more likely to find a great pair of jeans if you have more choices, but the irony of the "paradox of choice" lies in the second problem: You'll be less satisfied with your new jeans than if you had chosen from just three pairs.
The more choices people have, the less satisfied they are with whatever option they ultimately select. This is because it's harder to be confident in your choice, and you can't shake the feeling that you missed out on something better.
How does choice affect our standards on dating websites and apps?
On the one hand, dating apps and websites can make us more open to dating different types of people, because clicking on a profile and sending a quick message is relatively low effort. On the other hand, the choice overload will make each individual person you see on the website or app seem more expendable. Pronk and Denissen have suggested that online dating creates a "rejection mindset," where access to a seemingly unlimited stream of potential dates makes people more pessimistic and more rejecting.
So let's look at research on both of these potential consequences of choice: the likelihood of rejection and the likelihood of making a "good choice."
The likelihood of rejecting profiles
In one series of studies, Pronk and Denissen simulated the experience of a dating app like Tinder, where users see a series of photos of potential daters one at a time, clicking yes or no to indicate their interest in each person. In two of the studies, participants viewed a series of hypothetical partners, knowing they had no chance of meeting these people.
The researchers found that a rejection mindset set in fairly early, after about 12 profiles. In an additional study, participants signed up for a real online dating experience. In that study, people persisted a bit longer, with the rejection mindset kicking in, on average, at the 30th profile.
What the researchers also showed was that it wasn't so much the number of choices that led to rejection, but rather how many had already been rejected. That is, once the rejection mindset kicked in, it led people to continue rejecting, and where that breaking point was varied between people.
The researchers also examined gender differences. Prior research has shown that women are more likely than men to reject suitors in online dating, and men tend to initiate more contact. Consistent with this, Pronk and Denissen found that in all of the studies, women were generally more rejecting than men.
But, in addition, women were quicker to get into the rejection mindset. That is, women were less likely than men to accept partners initially, and they got even pickier as the number of choices expanded.
The likelihood of making a "good choice"
So we're rejecting more people when we have too many options. But maybe it's because we're raising our standards and only picking those who really have the qualities we're seeking. To test this out, Wu and Chiou asked participants to describe the characteristics of their ideal partner, and then they viewed a set of 30, 60, or 90 dating profiles.
The more profiles they had to choose from, the worse the match became between the profiles they chose and the qualities of their ideal partner. The researchers argued that it's cognitively too overwhelming to consider that many potential partners at once, causing people to pay less attention to each one and to miss out on some of the better matches. Research on real dating websites has shown that men, in particular, are more likely to reach out to women who don't match their preferences.
But just because someone doesn't meet your ideal partner characteristics doesn't mean they're a bad choice. In particular, the research on the "paradox of choice" claims not that we'll make poor choices, but rather that we'll be less satisfied with whatever choice we make.
In another experimental study, researchers told college students they were participating in a pilot program to develop an online dating website at their university. Students in the study were exposed to either a small number of choices (six profiles) or a large number (24 profiles). At the time they made their choices, those who had chosen from the large set and those had chosen from the small set were equally satisfied with their matches. However, a week later, those who had chosen from the larger dating pool reported being less happy with their match than those who had chosen from the smaller pool.
How can you avoid the perils of too much choice?
There are some things that you can do to avoid falling into the pessimistic rejection mindset and to make more thoughtful choices on these apps:
1. Restrict the number of matches you view at one time. Limit your time on the dating website, or limit how many profiles you will scroll through in one sitting on an app.
2. Restrict the overall number of matches you're exposed to. You can set stricter search criteria for matches. This is somewhat difficult on Tinder, where you can only base search results on location, age, and gender, but other sites and apps allow you to restrict your search on multiple criteria (e.g., education level, religious affiliation).
3. Be mindful of the effects of choice. Stop swiping away if you're finding it tiresome or frustrating and feel that breaking point of the "rejection mindset" kicking in.
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