Does Tinder Influence the Partners We End Up With?
Two new research studies reveal whether Tinder is making us choose different types of partner or relationships than we otherwise would.
Finding love is a perennial problem. In the distant past, our ancestors lived in small social groups and rarely moved far from the places they were raised. Their romantic options were limited. Choosing the right partner may have been the most important decision in their lives.
Today, the decision is no less important but the pool of potential partners is much bigger, partly thanks to the advent of dating apps. With relative ease we can sift through a seemingly endless stream of possibilities. But dating apps are such a radical departure from the now quaint dating practices of the past. Have they changed our thinking and behavior? Affected what we want in a relationship? Who we settle down with? Whether we opt for a fling over something more long-term?
Tinder is by far the most popular dating app: as of 2019 it has 50 million users worldwide. And it has proven attractive not just to those seeking love but also to relationship researchers. Psychologists are able to test their most intimate questions about partner preferences and choice by directly measuring the behavior of the app’s users.
The results of these investigations frequently appear in scientific journals. Today, we’ll look at just two recent examples.
First up, a team of psychologists from Norway has explored whether Tinder matches lead to one-night stands. A common criticism of the platform is that it promotes meaningless sexual encounters (I suppose whether or not this is a criticism or a benefit of Tinder depends a lot on whether one is having a lot of sex). Is it true, though? Is Tinder merely a hook up app?
In general, research shows that people who are more motivated to pursue uncommitted sex are more likely to use mobile dating apps. This might be because dating apps give the user fast access to many prospective partners. A person who prefers committed relationships, by their very nature, will less frequently opt to search for new partners because their relationships will last longer. Or it could be because those with a short-term mindset find the search itself rewarding: swiping left and right may, to some extent, act as a recreational activity.
In Tinder, when two users swipe left on each other’s profiles, thereby expressing interesting in one another, it is called a ‘match’. The app then allows the two parties to communicate and arrange a date. (A user can also indicate they ‘super like’ a profile by swiping up.)
Trond Viggo Grøntvedt and his colleagues wondered if Tinder matches led to one-night stands, as popular discourse would have us believe.
They recruited over 250 users of former users of Tinder. All of the volunteers were relatively young (under 30) and were interested in opposite sex partners. Each volunteer reported their total number of matches, how often they had met a match (leading either to casual sex or to at least the prospect of a long-term relationship), and how long they had used the app.
Only around half of the volunteers had met with any other Tinder user following a match, which does rather suggest that many people really are using the app recreationally, with no intention of pursuing a relationship. Those who had met a match had done so only around two times each, with numbers almost identical for men and women.
Twenty percent of the volunteers had experienced a one-night stand with a match; 25% had met someone who was interested in a long-term relationship. Overall, 80% of Tinder users reported that the app hadn’t led to a sexual relationship of any kind.
These results belie the conventional wisdom about Tinder as a hotbed of uncommitted sex. Clearly many users have no interest in pursuing any relationship. Those who do have an interest have limited success. Whether Tinder users would be any more or less successful at finding partners if they didn’t use the app remains a mystery.
In the meantime, Tinder is unlikely to be keen to update their company’s image: more than anything, it may explain why their membership is the biggest number in this article.
People don’t choose partners randomly. Each of us has preferences, and entering into a relationship is very much a negotiation. Although it is hardly romantic to think of dating as an attempt to strike a deal, in reality we are each trading what we have to offer for what we would like in an ideal partner. Moreover, we mix in restricted social circles and live in specific environments, where we are more likely to encounter people we are similar to.
The result is that we tend to pair up with people we match on appearance, attitudes, age, and values. What psychologists call “positive assortment”.
A team of psychologists from Belgium led by Brecht Neyt of Ghent University decided to test whether assortment also occurs on Tinder. After all, a Tinder user probably encounters a larger pool of prospective partners than a non-user. Tinder is geographically based, meaning that the app shows users people who are physically close to them, but barriers such as class and education are perhaps less present than in real life. This greater choice may mean that Tinder users are less inclined to settle for a non-perfect match. On the other hand, because Tinder is primarily a photo-based app, users may be swayed more by appearance than by personality — at least compared to people who first encounter one another in real life.
Neyt and colleagues developed a fake Tinder app that worked just like the real thing except for one crucial difference: the scientists could track how the user interacted with it, recording every swipe. They asked almost 500 volunteers who were familiar with Tinder to use the fake app as if it were the real thing. The volunteers indicated they disliked and liked roughly equal proportions of the profiles they were shown: around 45% of them. The remaining 10% of profiles were super liked.
Afterwards, the volunteers saw all the profiles again. This time they were prompted to evaluate the profiles using more sophisticated measures than simple swipes. They evaluated the profiles’ ages, attractiveness, and personality traits using questionnaires. Then they answered the same questions about themselves.
Neyt found that age was the most important trait. Being close in age (for stats geeks out there, one standard deviation higher similarity) increased the odds of a profile receiving a (super)like by 16%. Personality was also important: similarity in agreeableness or in openness to experience led to increased odds of receiving a (super)like of 10%.
Similarity in extraversion, conscientiousness, and emotional stability were not important. Interestingly, neither was similarity in attractiveness.
Comparison with the results of previous studies of Tinder users suggests that assortment is decreasing on this app: similarity is becoming less important.
Neyt and colleagues speculate that similarity in attractiveness may be less important on Tinder because the psychological distress associated with rejection is lower on the app. In other words, a Tinder user might feel comfortable expressing interest in another user who is exceptionally attractive, because the worst that can happen is that the other user does not reciprocate. In the real world, approaching a person who is “out of your league” in a bar or other social situation may be a gamble fraught with anxiety and embarrassment. To limit the possibility of rejection, we may gear our real-life preferences toward those we match in attractiveness.
More research on how internet dating is changing our centuries-old courtship practices will no doubt be forthcoming as we move into the 2020s.
Dr. Robert Burriss is a postdoc in the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel, where he works on a Swiss National Science Foundation funded project investigating personality and relationship development in romantic couples.
Grøntvedt, T. V., Bendixen, M., Botnen, E. O., & Kennair, L. E. O. (in press). Hook, line and sinker: do tinder matches and meet ups lead to one-night stands? Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806–019–00222-z
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
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