Why do we continuously swipe through various profiles in search of a charming partner, when doing so goes against all aspects of rational choice behaviour? In this post, Nadia Bahemia (MSc Behavioural Science) explores key psychological theories that helps frame why, even though we are likely to fail at finding ‘the one’ using dating apps, we return again and again.
I am what many of my friends may consider an ‘expert’ in online dating, having all the apps on my phone, from Bagel Meets Coffee to Tinder; I’m considered to be quite the ‘pro’. As a psychologist and behavioural scientist, however, I am constantly questioning my decision-making processes, taking a rational choice perspective, where the potential outcomes are analysed and selected according to a ‘consistent criterion’ (Levin & Milgrom, 2004).
The probability of finding ‘the one’ on Hinge is extremely low (and Hinge agrees on this with their data suggesting that less than one swipe in five hundred leads to a phone number exchange) I, like 72% of millenials (Brown, 2020) still come back to dating apps. While this behaviour may seem baffling at first glance, once broken down, the various underlying psychological constructs become quite clear. So, what motivates us to partake in an activity which we know will lead to little success?
The fast and the furious: system 1 and system 2 thinking
System 1 processes can be partially blamed for our ‘swipe frenzy’.
Our fast, instinctive and emotional thinking comes into play when situations are overly complex or overwhelming, such as when we are caught in the wild maelstrom of swipes.
System 1 processing relies on various heuristics that inform our decision-making (Kahneman, 2011) and may explain why we believe that the odds are in our favour when we use dating apps. Availability heuristic, for example, describes our tendency to make a judgement based on how easily we can recall examples of it. So, while 81% of Hinge users have never found a long-term relationship (Hinge- self-published data, 2016), our beliefs jar with these statistics. When we hear that our friend, or a friend’s friend found a partner in this way, it makes the possibility much more salient for us.
When you then consider Optimism Heuristics, which causes us to hope, our false hopes are further embedded as we hope to become part of the ‘chosen 19%’.
All the blame can’t be placed on system 1 however, system 2 thinking is just as guilty!
System 2 thinking is defined as deliberate, analytical and conscious (Kahneman, 2011), and for which learning is a key procedure which may explain why, even after enduring ‘swipe fatigue’, we keep returning to dating apps. Matches on Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, Bumble (the list goes on!) cause a release of dopamine in our brains that makes us feel like we’re quite literally walking on sunshine. The raised levels of dopamine, a ‘teaching signal’ and brain reinforcement mechanism (Schultz et al. 1997) we get from swiping means that we return again and again.
However, anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 would know that learning is dynamic so why do we not adapt and associate online dating with probable failure, even when we are faced with something as common and hurtful as ‘ghosting’?
Ghosting (when someone ceases all communication) is pretty common in the world of online dating, with around one quarter of respondents from a survey at Dartmouth College (Freedman, 2018) admitting to being ghosted in the past. The negative effects of ghosting can seem significant when what we gained in the potential relationship is felt even more in the sense of loss of it, or ‘loss aversion’ (Hobson, McIntosh, Marashi, 2019; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979), even if we weren’t that keen on ‘the match’ in the first place hence our never ending ‘addiction’.
It is clear that online dating behaviour is, at least in terms of rational choice perspective, irrational. This irrationality may not be as mysterious as initially believed, giving those of us who spend a little bit too long on these apps some leeway to explain some of our behaviours. Nonetheless, while using dating apps may, in all probability, lead to only a small chance of romance (I would know!), understanding these behaviours within these classical psychological and behavioural theories, can help us frame our swiping behaviour, and other aspects of life too!
- The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or LSE.
- Featured image courtesy of Yogas Design via Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/rPzEQ7tTRr8
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