“One of the most basic processes in higher brains is the ability to carry out perceptual categorization – to ‘make sense’ of the world,” stated neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, in his neuroscientific analysis of consciousness. So what happens when the world becomes too noisy to make sense of?

As part of a small-scale MSc research project, I investigated young adults’ conceptualisations of dating as mediated by Tinder, the popular dating app. The ubiquity and (ironically) taboo the app engenders resulted in considerable ambiguity surrounding its use, and it thus became crucial to investigate the social psychological underpinnings of Tinder’s use. To explore this idea, a focus group was deemed the most appropriate means of gathering rich qualitative data, and the data that emerged out of this focus group was analysed iteratively through an inductive thematic analysis wherein patterns and connections were identified.

The expected findings were that dating and Tinder are indeed ambiguous constructs in today’s society – there is no consensus, or social representation of the concept. If there is nowhere individuals can cognitively anchor (or, in Edelman’s words, perceptually categorise) dating to, how is it possible that dating apps and websites are proliferating? The asymmetry between rapid technological evolution and society is even otherwise apparent – it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep abreast of technological advancements. Two decades have increased interpersonal access, expedited information transmission, and invariably blurred the lines between individual and consumer.

Naturally, this lack of a fixed means of sensemaking urged people to anchor their experiences in something concrete – metaphors. Conceptual metaphor theory suggests metaphors are cognitive linguistic devices employed in anchoring novel or abstract concepts into pre-existing ones (i.e. ‘love is a journey’ anchors the abstract ‘love’ into the previously understood ‘journey’). Thus, love becomes linear, filled with roadblocks, or something with a destination.

In discussing Tinder, participants described it as a “mission,” “bar in an app,” and Tinder as a “window” (implying sneaking around) as compared to an “entry” (implying a wider access into dating). An extended metaphor that emerged was that of food; people compared Tinder to a ‘meat market,’ the experience of spending time on the app as ‘opening the fridge door [without looking for anything in particular to eat],’ and in the particular illustration that follows, aptly conceptualized what the infusion of technology into dating meant to them:

L: It kind of gives you the fix of being in contact with people, without having to make an effort to be in contact with people

C: But it’s not really nutritious. It’s like you’re eating junk food…It fills you up, but it doesn’t nourish you

What do these metaphors tell us? For one, their diversity alone reflects the multitude of ways in which Tinder and dating are understood. The war metaphor of “mission” is starkly different from “bar in an app,” the former implying dating is something that is won or lost, the latter that Tinder is a milieu for casual social interaction. Finally, “it fills you up but it doesn’t nourish you” indicates that Tinder meets some superficial need, but not core fulfillment. The food metaphor also analogises dating to consumption, which coincides with the next theme – the economic conceptualisation of dating and Tinder. In addition to frequently referring to Tinder as a “market,” there were mentions of feeling like it was “self-selling,” more “efficient” than real-life, and finally:

C: I mean, capitalism might not be the right word, but in its current manifestation, the forwardism is really what we’re talking about. The mass production, like an assembly line, is perhaps a better…

Perhaps this anecdote even reveals the implicit ubiquity of capitalism on social relationships today – Tinder commodifies what is inherently intangible – love and relationships, thereby creating a clash between the economic and the social.  And its effects have traversed the handheld devices it calls home. Somehow, demand for such apps have surpassed our ability to make sense of them.

The end of the focus group signalled a grim forecasting of the future:

C: …I just have this fear that we as a society are going in this direction where we’re all sitting in our PJs, and [it] effectively sells eating from a freaking plastic microwave thing just talking to each other and slowly dying in isolation. Like oh we’re so social, but it’s pseudo-sociality.

L: I think you’re very right, because, it kind of gives you the fix of being in contact with people, without having to make an effort to be in contact with people

C: But it’s not really nutritious. It’s like you’re eating junk food.

L: Maybe we do have the chicken and the egg confused. Maybe we’ve just gotten more [expletive] up and degraded and too sad of creatures to just go up to someone you like and just introduce yourself so you have to do these dating things and we’ve created that niche.

A: And it takes time, but now, everything is immediate, and we don’t want to take time for stuff that needs time, so [Tinder] opens a window. But at the end of the day, to build a real relationship, and to build a real emotional connection, you need time. That doesn’t go out of thin air.

These dystopian views are not baseless; rather, they reflect a disconnect between the sociality that people actually need, and what Tinder offers. Human experience is embodied, while Tinder is not. Tinder’s gamelike features offer similar addictive qualities of appealing design, interactive features like the “swipe,” and image-oriented navigation, as do other mobile games like candy crush, and gambling devices like slot machines. This might be leading to a misattribution of arousal, wherein users might attribute their positive feelings to the pseudosociality offered by the app, rather than the inherent arousal of gameplay. Thus, users are still hooked to the app, increasing its popularity, but not actually filling the void of sociality and belonging they seek to fill. This leads to disillusionment, dystopian ideations, and a disconnect that amplifies the ambiguity that dating inherently elicits.

In addition to acknowledging this ambiguity and tracking the sensemaking strategies used to alleviate it, I leave you with something to ponder. As much as society’s demands call for innovations, innovations too feed back into and fundamentally change social processes. The present discussion thus raises a lot of questions – is Tinder unwittingly changing the face of social relationships through its gamelike façade, but ultimately leaving us disillusioned and dissatisfied? Are the convenience and expedience of Tinder actually just McDonaldising love and relationships?

Interestingly, the term “love” never presented itself in discussing Tinder-mediated dating. While more cross-disciplinary research between economics and social psychology are (always) needed, the present discussion should be kept in mind and interrogated, before moving on to the next swipe.



  • This blog post was originally published at Psychology@LSE.
  • The post gives the views of the authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image credit: Photo by Chiara Pinna on Unsplash
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Sai Kalvapalle is a PhD candidate at the Rotterdam School of Management, in the Department of Business-Society Management. She completed her MSc in Organisational and Social Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2017. Her research focuses on drawing interdisciplinary theoretical connections to explain real-world phenomena.