Increasing numbers of us are seeking partners using mobile dating apps. Tinder, the most popular app, has upwards of 50 millions users worldwide.
Relationship scientists, who have spent decades studying how people pair up, have begun wondering whether dating apps like Tinder might be changing what we seek in a partner.
For example, studies of couples who hooked up when Tinder, Bumble, Grindr and the rest were little more than a twinkle in a software engineer’s eye showed that humans tend to ‘assort’. That is, to end up with partners whom they match on certain characteristics, such as age, attractiveness, and personality.
Do we assort in the same way when we ‘meet’ our partners through a dating app?
There are reasons to suspect we might not. For example, one of the reasons couple members might be similar is because, when we seek a partner in the real world, we are subject to so-called “search frictions.” In other words, we tend to mix with people who are from the same age cohort, the same socioeconomic background, the same ethnicity, who live in the same general area, and who have similar interests. We are less likely to meet people who are different to us than people who are similar to us. And we can only enter relationships with people we meet.
Well, until dating apps arrived on the scene.
Dating apps can eliminate many of these frictions, meaning that we can more easily ‘meet’ prospective partners who are different to us. Do we take advantage of this greater opportunity, or do we match as much as we did in those pre-Tinder days?
A team of psychologists from the Universities of Ghent, Antwerp, and Louvain, led by Brecht Neyt, sought to find out. They recruited 500 volunteers over the internet to try out their fake version of Tinder. The reason the scientists developed a fake Tinder was so they could collect extra data from their volunteers. Otherwise, the app worked much the same way as the real thing.
On Tinder, when two users swipe right on each other’s profiles, thereby expressing interest in one another, it is called a ‘match’. Users can also ‘superlike’ a profile to show they’re really interested. A left swipe indicates no interest in a profile.
After responding to 16 profiles, the volunteers were asked to judge the profiles’ age, attractiveness, and personality. Personality psychologists think of personality as made up of five components: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. The volunteers rated how high and low each profile appeared to be on these five traits.
Afterwards, the volunteers indicated their own age, and rated their own attractiveness and personality. Did the volunteers prefer profiles of people they were similar to?
The quick answer is: it depends.
Volunteers did match with people similar in age. Personality was less important than age, but the volunteers also tended to prefer profiles they matched in agreeableness and openness to experience. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no matching for extraversion or for conscientiousness and emotional stability.
The biggest shocker — given that Tinder is a photo-based app that places a premium on physical appearance — was that there was no assortment for attractiveness. A person’s attractiveness was unrelated to the attractiveness of the person they swiped right on.
Neyt and his colleagues suggest that this is because people tend to desire a partner who is high in attractiveness. And, because “showing interest in a person on Tinder is low in psychological costs in case of rejection,” we may be less shy to express interest in someone out of our league than we would be in real life.
Of course, a limitation of this study is that the ratings were all provided by the volunteers. Ideally, measures of the actual personality of the people depicted in the profiles would be compared with the personality of the volunteers. Also, independent raters could judge the attractiveness of both the volunteers and the profiles, so it wouldn’t be necessary to rely on self-ratings.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that this study only investigated preferences and not actual mate-choice. In reality, we will not always be lucky enough to pair up with everyone we are attracted to. It is possible that assortment is less detectable in preferences, but more so in actual couples, especially among couples who have been together for a while and who have grown more similar (what psychologists call ‘convergence’).
Neyt, B., Baert, S., & Vandenbulke, S. (2020). Never mind I’ll find someone like me — assortative mating preferences on Tinder. Personality and Individual Differences, 155, 109739. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2019.109739