Is It Time to Delete Our Dating Apps?
Not so fast—new apps are leveraging psychology to improve the dating experience.
Posted May 15, 2019
For better or worse, dating apps are here to stay. Online dating has exploded into mainstream culture over the past decade. Phone screens are inundated with profile pictures of potential partners. Thumbs are cramping from the endless swiping.
In a short period of time, dating apps have fundamentally altered the psychology of relationships. How we meet, flirt, engage, have sex, date, and form lifelong partnerships has been digitally upended—a far cry from the "meeting through a mutual friend" of bygone days. The questions on the minds of many psychologists (and single people for that matter) are: Do dating apps actually work? For all their promises of personality-matching algorithms and instant connection, is online dating a more effective way to find true love? Is relationship quality improving?
The answer: yes and no. To start with, yes, dating apps most certainly help with growing the sheer volume of possible connections. Without a doubt, they give a person access to far more potential love interests than before.
But access to more people doesn't necessarily translate into better dates. In fact, it's quite the opposite: More matches often lead to poorer in-person meetings. And there's also no compelling evidence that personality-matching algorithms lead to positive relationship outcomes down the road.
Toxic courtship behavior
So what gives? Part of the reason we aren't seeing sweeping positive changes is because of how social interactions occur in digital environments. Researchers have found that the anonymity and invisibility that define online interactions lead people to behave in mostly uncharacteristic ways—a "toxic disinhibition" effect in which an otherwise good-natured person in "real life" quickly becomes indecent online.
Evolution equipped us to respond to certain social-based cues during interactions. Those cues that signal "humanness" are absent in online dating apps. A three-dimensional person, with all their idiosyncrasies and quirks, gets reduced to a two-dimensional display. There's no semblance of "real" interaction between two people.
Some of the more popular modern dating apps are specifically designed to exploit this negative side of human nature. They make it easy for a person to put in less effort and to show little concern for others. The seemingly infinite number of potential partners, with the clever gamification of "the swipe," means that users go into the experience with an evaluative, assessment-oriented mindset. This, in turn, leads to the objectification of potential partners.
Of all the gripes that people have with dating apps, there's one that takes the cake: ghosting.
Researching the paranormal in dating apps
Despite its widespread occurrence, only very recently have psychologists turned their attention to ghosting. A team of researchers led by Dr. Leah LeFebvre recently published a study in the journal Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, which attempted to explore some of these nuances.
In their research, LeFebvre and colleagues found that most people reported participating in both roles. These people had been ghosted by another person and ghosted someone themselves. When asked why they had ghosted a match, respondents in the study gave one of the five following reasons—convenience, attractiveness, negative interactions, relationship state, and safety.
The first theme (convenience) is the most common. Terminating a relationship is awkward and uncomfortable, even for those relationships that are days or weeks old. Dating apps help a person avoid this discomfort by permitting a type of "relationship dissolution" with little to no consequences. The awkward explanation of telling someone why you're no longer interested is avoided altogether. On to the next.
Sure, the convenience of ghosting makes it seem justifiable on an individual basis. But the problem is, on the aggregate level, ghosting devalues a dating app product and its promise of connecting people. Many apps have lost the humanness and, as a result, humanity.
Improving dating apps with behavioral science
It's not all bad news. Researchers, product designers, and entrepreneurs recognize that there's now an opportunity to recreate dating apps for good—to leverage the power of technology while still focusing on the most important element: the human interaction.
And so the argument goes as follows: Get an app that is able to reinsert these social and human elements in such a way that it's able to approximate the complex interactive features of a face-to-face conversation, and you should see better relationship outcomes through the use of the app.
Fortunately, that's the direction we're headed in the dating app market. Two companies, in particular, seem to be delivering on the promise of leveraging insights from psychology and behavioral science to improve the quality of connections.
paird: Designed for honest and real behaviors
The mission of the new app paird, it claims, is to create a future of dating that is honest, authentic, and decent. The platform is designed to encourage users to "keep it real" both in terms of how they present themselves (#nofilters is a thing) and in terms of how they engage with others on the site.
Above all, they want users to interact with one another as they would in a real-life setting, face-to-face. To accomplish this, they have various features, including voice notes, video function, a semi-social feed, and, perhaps most promising of all, an anti-ghosting feature.
The anti-ghosting feature allows users to set their own time limit for how long they would like a conversation to go quiet before having it automatically erased. For those who are the ones doing the ghosting, as the designated time limit with a pair begins to countdown, the user gets a notification that nudges them back into the conversation, urging them to "not be a ghost." Adding in a touch of loss aversion, along with some personal accountability, gets the person to realize on their own that what they're doing isn't cool.
Hinge: Designed to be deleted
Hinge addresses the paradox of how dating apps commercialize their services. Apps make money by having more users, which means that if a dating app is true to its word (i.e., getting people to meet and form a relationship), it should be comfortable with the churn of losing valued users. No previous app dealt with this irony head-on. Hinge does.
Its designers see the technology piece as a stepping stone to having more meaningful connections in real life, where it counts. To do this, Hinge has included features like personality prompts and liking interactions. The prompts are meant to get a user to show off a bit about themselves beyond just a profile image. The individual likes pictures, and prompts spur a conversation between two people to get more than the useless "Hey, how ya doing?" starter.
The most promising position Hinge has taken is through its mutual friend connections. This is the element of real life that they wanted to bring back into the online space. By plugging into Facebook, Hinge allows for possible connections up to three degrees away. The premise is that the friends-of-friends effect leads to some common rapport before meeting in person (and limits the interactions with randos along the way).
A hopeful future for dating apps
Dating apps have changed the psychology of meeting people. Some of that changed behavior was for good. But not all of it. Many informed consumers in today's dating app market are starting to see that we need more than just a swipe on a face.
Decades of research on relationships and social psychology can help inform companies like paird and Hinge and bring realness back to the dating world. Because no matter how fancy the technology gets, what matters most is the human interaction.
LeFebvre, L. E., Allen, M., Rasner, R. D., Garstad, S., Wilms, A., & Parrish, C. (2019). Imagination, Cognition and Personality: Consciousness in Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice, 0(0), 1–26.