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Why Dating Apps May Be Keeping You Single

The algorithm to love can leave you feeling even more alone.

Key points

  • Dating algorithms have capitalized on turning dating itself into an addicting game that is low cost and high reward.
  • Algorithms can foster connections when used with thoughtful intention and openness to differences.
  • Successful relationships are often not built on similarities but rather on the capacity to tolerate and reconcile differences.

A day after New Year, the holiday aisle at drug stores gets a makeover: obnoxiously oversized bears and heart-shaped chocolate boxes under painfully bright fluorescent light; it is the last-minute saving grace for the forgetful valentines.

As a clinical psychologist, I’ve seen folks from all walks of life coming through my door yearning for love, holding onto dysfunctional relationships, and struggling with heartaches. Carefully dodging emotional arrows and stepping over broken hearts, relationship labels become the impenetrable armor fiercely guarding the fragility of our self-esteem on the battlefield of dating. The lucky ones who survive get to walk away with partners, embarking on yet another journey to learn the secrets of long-lasting relationships.

We live in a time when algorithms know our deepest desires: They recommend restaurants you would enjoy, nudge you to buy things on your wishlist but out of your budget, and tell you where to vacation. Algorithms can even help us find love, and, apparently, it is becoming increasingly common. According to a nationally representative survey study published in 2019, about 39 percent of straight couples met through dating sites in 2017, a 17 percent increase from 2009 (Rosenfeld, Thomas, & Hausen, 2019). Netflix's newly released documentary “Tinder Swindler” tells the real-life story of a con artist posing as a wealthy and charming billionaire who preyed on his victims’ longing for love. It exposes flaws with online dating; its gamified interface captivates our insatiable needs for novelty and validation.

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Source: alleksana/pexels

Dating Apps Are "Pocket-Sized" Slot Machines

On a quest for love, the index finger becomes the frontline soldier. Swiping left is the polite gesture to reject potential suitors without the emotional sting. Uncomfortable emotions are avoided by applying as many layers of armor (i.e., filters) as possible—age, height, religion, political preference, you name it. Swiping right is the ultimate mating dance, and the instantaneous “match” symbol triggers the release of a cascade of neurotransmitters, including a flood of dopamine, a powerful reward agent that underlies many addictive behaviors (Beck, 2021). You would probably delete a dating app for which hours of swiping results in no match, as much as you would walk away from an app in which every swipe turns into a match. The gamification of dating apps transforms the act of swiping into a highly rewarded activity similar to slot machines, where winning (a.k.a. matching) takes place at random intervals that would in turn act as a powerful reinforcement that leaves us craving more (Skinner, 1972).

Whereas the purpose of dating used to be finding partners to build deeper connections, dating algorithms have capitalized on turning dating itself into an addicting game that is low cost and high reward.

Dating Algorithms Makes Us Value Superficial Qualities Instead of Giving Others the Benefit of the Doubt

If you make it through the seductive singing of the dating app siren, it is time to go on a date to meet the person behind the screen. Many people have developed “dating algorithms” over time, a list of red flags to watch out for. Who picked up the bill? Did the other person seem too overly enthusiastic or eager? Did they text you immediately after the first date or did they leave you on “read” for three days before responding? Every detail becomes a new set of filtering criteria to determine whether you will see this person again. The endless dating pool also means it has never been so easy to “ghost” someone or send a well-crafted text message to avoid an awkward conversation before trekking forward onto the dating safari.

Algorithms have afforded humanity profound opportunities to connect. In the face of the pandemic, I could not imagine what the world would be like without social media or virtual space. However, as a psychologist whose job is to help individuals foster deeper and better connections, I worry that having algorithms that curate to our preferences means we lose sight of our values, the space to have difficult conversations, or the courage to embrace emotional vulnerability. On a macro level, we voice concerns on the world becoming increasingly divided. On a micro level, we are sheltered from confronting differences by dating algorithms with each layer of filter applied. We limit ourselves from being challenged and close ourselves up to differences. In my clinical experience, successful relationships are often not built on similarities but rather on the capacity to tolerate and reconcile differences.

Surprisingly, I am a romantic and far from a dating cynic who is here to unveil the disillusionment of modern relationships. I have witnessed what love is capable of when a relationship is secure: We can afford to take risks knowing that we can return to safety; we can dare to make mistakes knowing that there is compassion on the other side. Algorithms can foster connections when used with thoughtful intention and openness to differences. The need for connection is baked into our DNA, and the unrelenting effort to search for love and belonging is our shared identity.

For the next date, try being more mindful with each swipe, applying one less filtering criteria, and having a difficult conversation in person.

References

Beck, S. (2021). The Brain and Swiping for Love. Scientific Kenyon: The Neuroscience Edition, 5(1), 107–116.

Rosenfeld, M. J., Thomas, R. J., & Hausen, S. (2019). Disintermediating your friends: How online dating in the United States displaces other ways of meeting. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(36), 17753–17758.

Skinner, B. F. (1972). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York, NY: Springer.

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