The Science Behind What Tinder Is Doing to Your Brain

New research explains how dating apps are changing people.

Posted May 28, 2018

Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
Source: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Dating apps and websites have made it easier than ever to meet someone new. One study found that about one-third of marriages now begin online. About 72 percent of college students use Tinder, and 80 percent of Tinder users are millennials. It’s worth looking at the social and personal consequences of meeting people through our screens.

We like looking at hot people. When users open Tinder, they are presented with an array of images. A study led by Vasily Klucharev from the F.C. Donders Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging in the Netherlands found that activity in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region involved in reward processing, is more active when people view attractive faces.

People also believe that attractive people are more intelligent, sociable, competent, friendly, and trustworthy. Even mothers are swayed by looks: A study by developmental psychologist Judith Langlois found that mothers are more affectionate toward attractive babies.

Because of this bias, there are now services that allow users to upload photos that anonymous people rate. Services such as Photofeeler provide rating services for those who want to look attractive, or professional, or fun.

And consider the element of unpredictable rewards associated with the use of Tinder. Unpredictable rewards cause more activity in reward regions of the brain than rewards we know are coming. Casino slot machines are one example of this effect at work. Players do not know when, while pulling a lever or pressing a button, they will hit a jackpot. They play knowing that eventually, but not exactly when, someone who pulls the lever will win.

Tinder operates on the same principle: Users do not know when, while swiping, they will match with an individual they deem attractive. And users do not know when, after engaging in a conversation, a match will respond. Moreover, an individual’s profile will still appear in the apps of other users who are swiping, even while the individual does not have the app open. This means that when users check their apps after a prolonged period of time, they often discover that they have gained new matches. This unpredictable quality keeps users curious and hooked.

Recently, researchers have posited that a single valuation stream governs our choices. There is a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) that appears to modulate how we value our options.

According to the value-based decision-making model, the amygdala and ventral striatum activate in response to choices. At the same time, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex holds subjective value, and the DLPFC modifies the weights of each value. These modifications depend on a variety of factors, including delay discounting, diminishing marginal utility, and cognitive biases. Thus, self-control may not be a matter of impulse versus deliberation. Rather, our brains integrate various values and assign weight to each value depending on our goals.

For those who are eager to meet new romantic partners, their DLPFC assigns greater weight to the value of checking Tinder often.

Another potential issue with Tinder is choice overload. Psychologist Barry Schwarz has claimed that having too many options reduces the likelihood that any decision will be made at all. Choice overload also reduces our certainty that any specific choice we make is the correct one.

One study found that consumers were more likely to buy a jam when they were presented with six flavors compared to 30. And among those who did make a purchase, the people presented with fewer flavors were more satisfied with their choice.

The phenomenon of “ghosting” has become well known. This is when an individual withdraws from a person's life and ignores their attempts at communication. In a recent study led by Gili Freedman at Dartmouth College, researchers interviewed 554 men and women about their dating experiences.

One-fourth of the respondents said they had been ghosted in the past, while one-fifth said they have ghosted another individual. With more options to pursue partners, and lower risk of reputation damage in one’s social circle, it is possible that ghosting is on the rise.

In the past, when individuals met partners through their peer groups, ghosting was perhaps not as prevalent due to social costs. Today, people don't have to incur such costs.

Further, interacting with Tinder long enough changes the brain’s response to it. Neurobiological models have suggested that the algorithm of reward learning is associated with dopamine.

When individuals first get a reward, dopamine neuron firing increases in response to the pleasant sensation they feel. Eventually, dopamine neuron firing intensifies not in response to the reward itself, but to the reward predictor.

Put differently, after an association is established between cue and reward, the cues that predict the reward increase dopamine firing even more than the reward itself. Knowing something good is about to happen makes us feel more pleasure than the good thing itself.

Tinder hijacks the brain’s system of reward learning to keep individuals hooked. Tinder sends notifications when a user has a new match. When users first begin to receive such notifications, their dopamine neuron firing rate does not increase until the user views the profile of the individual with whom they matched. However, over time, the user may begin to experience a reward response simply from the notification.

Meeting new romantic partners is easier than ever with the rise of dating apps. In a paper discussing moral outrage on the internet, Yale neuroscientist Molly Crockett has noted that technology companies claim they simply provide platforms for social behaviors without altering those behaviors.

Likewise, dating app creators claim to make our lives easier without changing them. They don't seem to question whether they are changing our dating behaviors or hijacking our neurobiology.

If users meet their one true love on Tinder, delete the app, and never use it again, then Tinder’s business model would be less successful. They rely on users to continue swiping.

It is up to technology companies and researchers to find ways that dating apps can be used safely and responsibly.  

People can do what they can to ensure they don't get hooked. Still, tech companies spend vast sums of money in an attempt to outsmart users.