The Science Behind How Dating Apps Are Changing Our Brains

Millennials are well-accustomed to instant gratification — we can click to get our Amazon order on the same day, binge watch an entire season of our favorite show as soon as it’s uploaded to Netflix, or have meals delivered to our door when a craving hits. Our have-it-now culture has even fed through to how we find love and sex, with a time before we could simply swipe right to land a date seeming like a distant memory. 

If you’ve been single within the last five years or so, there’s a good chance that you have downloaded a dating app. You’re much more likely to meet your partner online than through the now seemingly archaic methods of being introduced by friends or locking eyes across a bar, and smartphone technology has jumped at the chance to cater for our desire to find love from the comfort of our own homes. 

Although the success stories of couples who first crossed paths on Tinder seem a dime a dozen, some doubt the benefits of swiping to find love. Psychologists are beginning to identify dating app addiction among clients, and many blame apps such as Bumble for a rise in much-loathed trends such as ghosting and breadcrumbing. So could spending the night sifting through profiles really be having a negative impact?

The interface of many dating apps gamify the search for love, turning it into an activity we can play as easily as a level of Candy Crush. When we get a match, the brain delivers a heady hit of dopamine, a feel-good chemical activated when we achieve an uncertain outcome — and that hit of dopamine is extremely enjoyable, according to Psychology Today. In fact, Tinder co-founder Jonathan Bedeen, who first designed the swipe function that now characterizes many dating apps, previously said that the app is designed to turn something that might once have been “laborious work” into something “fun,” according to CNBC.

 

When we get a match, the brain delivers a heady hit of dopamine, a feel-good chemical activated when we achieve an uncertain outcome — and that hit of dopamine is extremely enjoyable.

 

But are we having a bit too much fun? That’s certainly what some might argue. After all, experts say that apps are designed to keep us coming back for more, per Vice — hardly a recipe for long-lasting love. Although dates are now more accessible than ever, millennials are also having much less sex than previous generations, as The Atlantic reported. We might all be matching, but it seems that these virtual interactions rarely translate into actual get-togethers, with Hinge reporting that just 1 in 500 matches leads to so much as a phone number exchange. It seems that for some, the pursuit of the happy hormones that a match delivers has become more important than the pursuit of love or sex.

It is for this exact reason that some point fingers towards dating apps for the rise in poor dating etiquette. When the search for love is gamified, the options seemingly limitless, it is all too easy to objectify people, ignoring their last message or stringing along multiple potential partners. 

 

We might all be matching, but it seems that these virtual interactions rarely translate into actual get-togethers, with Hinge reporting that just 1 in 500 matches leads to so much as a phone number exchange.

 

 

But there is a significant flip-side. While dating apps might get a bad rap amongst romantics, they also enable us to make connections that might have been out of reach just a few years ago. Research shows that users of dating apps tend to make more varied and diverse connections, Forbes noted; and some early studies have suggested that partners who meet online have more enduring relationships, Business Insider added. Widening our pool of potential suitors instead of settling for someone within the limited realm of our real-life social circle means that we infinitely increase the option of finding someone well-suited to us. 

And as for the bad behavior that many blame on the proliferation of online dating? Perhaps we’re too quick to idealize a time before hitting the like button was our go-to method of tying down a few drinks. Singletons have always come in all types, good and bad. After all, ‘90s romcoms simply wouldn’t have been the same without the trope of a lovelorn romantic waiting longingly for a phone call that never comes. 

 

So what’s the secret to using dating apps in a healthy way? And how should you approach them if you really are invested in finding love?

 

First of all, be encouraged by the stats. Bumble’s global brand director has revealed that the app boasts a confirmed 20,000 marriages, per British GQ. Clearly there are others out there looking for something long-term. 

Avoid dating app fatigue by logging out if you feel that you’ve reached swipe saturation. Experts say that the human brain hits cognitive overload once we try to talk to more than nine people, so juggling too many matches might lead to exhaustion and compel you to hit the unmatch button too quickly. Limit your time online and be sure that you don’t view dating apps as the only way that you might find love, with many other potential ways of meeting a partner available. And remember that those profiles represent real people. Be conscientious when it comes to the feelings of others in the same way as you would in real-life interactions.

Like many forms of technology, dating apps offer a previously impossible plethora of options and opportunities, and our hunter-gatherer brains are still struggling to adapt. Although our biology can be tricky to argue with, there are certainly ways that we can challenge our own behavior to make utilizing dating apps more mindful. And if you master it? Then love (or at least a few nights of fun) might be a mere right swipe away. 

 

  • When I matched with someone I really liked on Tinder, I gave them my phone number after a day or two of chatting and then moved the interaction away from Tinder altogether. That way, I wasn’t compelled to check the app multiple times a day to see who else had messaged or matched with me – I could focus on the one I was interested in.

    It worked out, he and I are in a pretty nice relationship now. 🙂