People all over the world extol the virtues of love, particularly romantic love. Some researchers believe that love, like happiness or anger, is a fundamental human emotion, while others believe it is a cultural phenomenon influenced by social pressures and expectations. And, while the desire to find love is universal, are the days of meeting someone organically in person or through mutual friends over?

Dating has clearly changed dramatically since our parents and grandparents first met, when chivalry was the norm. Making time to look for love, however, appears to be another "to-do" task for many in today's hectic world. Swipe-Based Dating Applications (SBDAs) differ from other forms of social media in that they allow users to "swipe" the screen to like or dislike the profile of another user.

Since SBDAs first appeared on the dating scene in 2013, swiping for love has grown in popularity. Tinder, one of the most popular dating apps, had over 6 million paid users in 2020, a 6.6 million increase from 2015. One study found that about one-third of marriages now begin online and about 72 percent of college students use Tinder.

With the outbreak of the global pandemic, dating app usage skyrocketed, with Tinder reporting the most "swipes" in a single day: 3 billion. Other dating apps, such as OkCupid, saw a 700% increase in dates between March and May 2020, while Bumble video calls increased by 70%.

Several online dating sites allow users to elaborate on themselves and their ideal partner, whereas others, such as Tinder, limit user profiles to 500 characters. It could be argued that this character limit breeds a user interface that encourages a "hook-up" culture and a lack of depth in first interactions.

🎰 The Partner Shopping Game 🎰

Gamification is the application of gaming mechanics to non-gaming environments to make complex tasks more enjoyable.

Dating apps are intended to treat the dating experience as if it were a game. While both offline and online dating have the unpredictability of a game and the potential outcomes of meeting someone, online dating differs in that it offers monetary incentives to gain access to better romantic matches.

Tinder, for example, has a feature called "Super Like," which is used to stand out from the "card stack" (a stack of algorithmic partner matches) as someone who is extremely interested.

Thesee Super Likes can be purchased via the app, and users are encouraged to upgrade to Tinder Gold or Platinum membership, which includes five free Super Likes per week.

Researchers of online dating social interactions have used the analogy of "shopping" to describe how SBDAs have designed their app interfaces. Users choose which potential partners they think are interesting enough to move past the profile browsing stage and into a conversation.

Users are forced to make snap judgments about the personalities of others based on a photo and a brief profile biography. It can be like sifting through an infinite number of sales pitches. A person has 500 characters to express their sense of humor, moral standing, and future goals in life.

Researchers Heino and colleagues dubbed this shop-dating analogy "Relationshopping," in which potential partners are no longer viewed as people but rather as products.

Woman accidentally swiped on lucifer for dating site

We are constantly bombarded by choices, and when it comes to potential partners, the Internet's growth and accessibility has opened up a seemingly limitless world of possibilities and we now have access to millions of people from all walks of life around the world.

To capitalize, web-based businesses have stepped in over the last several decades to provide millions of potential romantic partners in remote locations with access, communication, and matching services (dating applications).

However, according to studies, there comes a point when the number of options available to us becomes overwhelming. Because our brains require a limit when it comes to choice in order to see beyond the fog to some kind of horizon, it progresses from the thrill of the unknown to the terror of the infinite.

The Brain's Reward System

Dating app developers argue that they are simply taking social behaviors and primitive procreation mechanisms that have been in use throughout our species' evolution and providing a more convenient space for people to do so.

Although data on how dating apps are changing the way we date is being collected, the effects on our brains are still being discovered. However, because there are so many different types of people, it's difficult to draw firm conclusions in the early stages of online dating. 

The nucleus accumbens of the brain processes and motivates rewards and behaviors, releasing dopamine when we anticipate receiving a reward. So, it's not the reward itself that has a big impact on emotions and memories, but the anticipation of a reward.

Reward learning occurs when we experience something unexpected. Addiction, for instance, isn’t a fixation to (insert addiction here) but instead a hijacking of our normal reward system through pleasurable stimuli or drugs.

These primitive systems were evolved to ensure the survival of our species. On dating apps, dopamine has been found to activate our limbic system in two ways.

You receive an unpredictable reward when you “match” with someone, and your brain rewards you with a dose of adrenaline and dopamine. After which, your reward system continues to reward you in anticipation of matching with someone while you swipe potential partners waiting for that next match.

The lack of real-life translation from the reward of a match to a meaningful connection offline appears to be putting stress on dating app users. Some users have reported feeling exhausted or burnt out by the continual search for the unexpected and nothing to show for the effort in real-life.

Objectification & Anti-Social Behavior

The environment of dating apps facilitates the prevalence of anti-social behaviors that would otherwise rarely happen when dating offline. One example of anti-social behavior is “ghosting,” which is a term used to describe when someone completely cuts you off and this lack of accountability can, in turn, facilitate the objectification of both men and women. 

Objectification is defined as the act of degrading someone to the status of a mere object, and a common myth is the idea that women tend to be more sexually objectified than men.

While women most certainly are, often due to pornography and media, such a belief is constrained by the limited amount of research on the emotional components of male sexual desire. Women want sex just as much as men. Where we differ isn’t in higher or lower sex drives but in the ways in which we communicate our emotional needs with or without sex.

According to renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel, the most common misconception about male vs. female sexuality is that men are creatures of nature, while women are creatures of meaning. Biology drives him. Emotions drive her. But in actuality, sexuality is more similar than different among the sexes.

"A major unknown of male sexuality is how relationally-driven it truly is." Sex is the language that men use to express their desire for love, tenderness, surrender, sensuality, affection, and other things. "For him, sex is frequently the only way he can meet these emotional needs. For women, sexuality is animated by being the turn on. Her flicker comes from inside, not from the other."

In the absence of nonverbal communication, researchers believe that the emphasis placed on app user images increases sexual objectification. Users are compelled to base their offline meeting decision on physical characteristics and self-reported height, and processing this information prior to meeting someone results in instant judgment and rapid evaluation.

Prefrontal dorsolateral cortex

According to research, the primary brain areas involved in this process are the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPC) (DLPFC). The ventromedial prefrontal cortex holds subjective value when swiping through potential matches on an app, and the DLPFC modifies the weights of each value.

The Positives of Dating Apps

Although it may appear that we are moving further away from meaningful human connection, there are some potential benefits to be highlighted.

According to research, dating app users have reported an increase in meeting people from different cultural and religious backgrounds and forming relationships that would not have occurred if they had relied solely on their immediate familial and social networks.

Furthermore, dating apps allow people with communication difficulties to get to know someone before meeting in person, which can help them overcome social phobia. According to a study conducted by Singles in America, 58 percent of 5,000 people reported shifting toward more intentional dating as a result of the pandemic.

cow and manatee talking about dating cartoon

While 63% said they are spending more time getting to know their matches, nearly 70% said they are being more honest in their online interactions.

It is important to note that the limitations of these findings are based on self-reports, and we are biased when we answer questions about ourselves and our behaviors. When discussing the impact (positive or negative) of dating apps on our mental health, it is important to remember that context matters. Most behaviors, if left unchecked, can become addictive or harmful to our health.

When we understand how a dopamine loop forms, we can take better actions to avoid becoming victims of our reward system. Once we have that awareness, we can interact with things like a dating app with more rationality than our limbic system naturally provides. Make a reservation for a cooking class in a cuisine that both of you enjoy.

😍 Dating Ideas 😍

If you find yourself planning a date in person, consider doing something that isn’t centered around drinking alcohol.

It’s important to ask yourself, "Is this someone you like only when you both drink alcohol?"

Activity-based date ideas are a great way of breaking the ice and easing the nerves of a first date, and below are a few options:

1. Book a cooking class on a cuisine you both enjoy.

2. Take your (or their) dog for a walk in a nice park.

3. Mooch around a farmer’s market for lunch and people watch.

4. Go rock climbing, either in a gym or preferably outside.

5. Hit up a drive-in movie.

6. Grab some coffee at your favorite spot.

We are creatures of habit, and we have our reward system to blame for that. Luckily, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, dating apps aren’t changing happy relationships. Instead, they’ve lowered the threshold of when to leave an unhappy one.


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