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Are Dating Apps Better at Finding Love or Sex?

Apps may be underrated as facilitators of long-term love.

Key points

  • A survey of college students who used dating apps found that online daters were more interested in finding love than hookups.
  • The more motivated dating app users were by their search for love, the more likely they were to meet up with a match in person.
  • Users' motivation to hook up was unrelated to their likelihood of meeting up with a match in person.
SHVETS production from Pexels
Source: SHVETS production from Pexels

Online dating has been around since the 1990s, but with the introduction of mobile dating apps, like Tinder, online dating became faster-paced and more popular than ever. Tinder currently has over 60 million users and a 2020 survey of a representative sample of US adults found that 30 percent had used a dating website or app at some point. For those unfamiliar with dating apps like Tinder, here's how they work: Users create a brief profile and browse through profiles of other users by swiping through a series of profile photos. If they like what they see, they swipe right and if they don't, they swipe left. If both users swipe right on each other, it's a match, and the pair can initiate contact. These apps use GPS technology in order to determine which users are nearby. For this reason, Tinder has a reputation as a hookup app, where people can quickly and easily find someone nearby who is up for an immediate casual hookup.

Despite their reputation as hookup apps, hooking up is not the main reason people use these apps. In fact, the most common reasons people use dating apps is that they're trendy and exciting, suggesting that many users treat these apps as a game or diversion, rather than a way to search for romantic or sexual partners. Among those users who are looking to meet someone on these apps, the search for love is more common than the search for a casual sexual encounter. But who actually ends up meeting up with their matches more often: Those searching for love or those searching for casual sex?

A new study by Meredith Harrison and colleagues explored how love motives and sex motives predicted college students' likelihood of actually meeting up with a dating app match. They surveyed 267 students, 138 of whom had used a dating up at some point. Of those who used a dating app, most were casual users—38.2 percent had only used them once or twice and another 11.8 percent only used them about once a month. As for the more regular users, 34.5 percent used a dating app weekly and 15.4 percent daily. Of those who used the apps, 59 percent reported that they had met a match in person at least once. Similar to past research, the results also showed that trendiness and excitement were more common motives than love or sex, but love was a more common motive than sex. Not surprisingly, men were more likely than women to rate hooking up as the reason they used dating apps, but they were also slightly more likely than women to say they used the apps to look for love.

Who was most likely to meet up with matches in person?

It was those looking for love. For each 1-point increase (on a 5-point rating scale) in the tendency to use apps to find love, participants were 2.5 times more likely to have met up with a match. On the other hand, the extent to which people rated hooking up as a reason for using the app was totally unrelated to their likelihood of actually meeting up with a match. So, not only was the search for love more common than the search for lust, but it was also more likely to lead to an in-person encounter.

Why would those looking for love be more successful on dating apps?

The study didn't address that question, but there are several possibilities. If love motives are more common, especially for women, then those looking for hookups may be less able to find a partner who shares their desire for a casual encounter. It is also possible that those looking for hookups sent less appealing messages than those looking for love. The study found that men were more likely to be looking for hookups, and we know from other online dating research that men tend to contact more women, but spend less effort per woman, writing shorter messages. So, this may have led those looking for hookups to be less successful. Another possibility is that those looking for hookups were less invested in their search than those looking for love, and they generally put less time and effort into using the app and making contact with matches. Finally, this data was collected recently, so some of the participants may have been reporting on their dating app use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear of contracting COVID-19 may have made people less likely to pursue hookups, consistent with other data showing that since the pandemic, singles have been taking things slowly when it comes to physical intimacy.

It's important to note that the study exclusively focused on college students and surveyed a relatively small sample of people who used dating apps. It's possible that slightly older adults might be more successful in meeting matches for hookups. But these results certainly suggest that despite their reputation as hookup apps, dating apps may actually better serve those looking for love.

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