Endless swiping: how and why dating apps keep you hooked


In an era of smartphones and instant gratification, there is an app for everything – including romance. Apps such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge have become an integral part of many people’s dating lives: in 2022, there were over 366 million online dating service users, with that number predicted to rise to 440 million by 2027. It’s easy to see why these services are popular – being able to ‘meet’ people who you would never otherwise encounter without even having to leave your bed sounds pretty great, especially if you’re LGBTQ+ or living through a global pandemic, both of which increase your likelihood of having used a dating app. This industry generates billions in yearly revenue, despite many of these services having free-to-use versions. So, how do these dating apps work? Do they actually work as intended, or are they just a way to extract money from single people?

It is predicted that there will be 440 million dating app users by 2027

As an (unfortunately) seasoned dating app user myself, I was not surprised to learn that the algorithms and mechanics that many of these apps are based on can be shallow and aren’t always successful at finding exactly who you’re looking for. Tinder, for example, used to use ‘Elo scores’, a term originally used for chess rating. Its algorithm paired users with similar scores together, based on the swipes a user receives. They stated in a 2019 blog post that this is “old news”, but whatever system they use now is still going to be heavily appearance-based. Hinge is based on the Nobel prize-winning Gale-Shapley algorithm, the basic idea being that predicting who will like users back as well as who they like leads to more success, but even this method is flawed, as anyone who has experienced the ‘most compatible’ feature on Hinge will be able to testify.

Like most social media-aligned apps, dating apps are designed first and foremost to keep your attention. In an article from the BBC last year, psychologist Zoe Mallett explained that a phenomenon called intermittent reinforcement gets people to come back for more: essentially, the uncertainty of whether you will get a match makes it more exciting when you do get one. This exploits the same brain pathways as gambling does, increasing the amount of dopamine released when a match is made and making it as fun and rewarding as possible to swipe through endless profiles instead of messaging and going on dates with the people you’ve already matched with. On a personal note, there’s a non-zero chance that people I’ve ghosted on dating apps are reading this right now – if that’s you, then I am deeply sorry, but at least psychology says it’s not my fault…

After these apps gain your attention, the companies that run them need a way to convert it into cash. Some do this through ad revenue, but many apps also have paid subscription-based features. Bumble’s new ‘Trending’ feature, for example, promises to connect you with “incredible people” (i.e. the profiles that get ‘liked’ the most, i.e. conventionally attractive people) if you buy Premium+ for only £21.99 a week. What a bargain, am I right?

In the interest of fairness, it should be mentioned that some people do find love on dating apps. In a study by Pew Research in the US, around 12% of all online daters surveyed said that they had been in a committed relationship with someone they met on a dating site/app, including one in five LGBTQ+ users.

12% of users had been in a committed relationship with someone they met on a dating site or app

But what other effects can these apps have? Online dating is not isolated from the real world, and it is worrying to think that the black-and-white, swipe-right-or-left attitudes encouraged by some of these apps could bleed into real life. A 2020 study published in BMC Psychology showed swipe-based dating app (SBDA) use was correlated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and distress compared to those who do not use the applications – although  this could be due to people experiencing these difficulties seeking sources of easy dopamine, rather than the apps themselves causing harm.

Many people, me included, have decided to move away from the dating apps that we downloaded during 2020 and meet people the old-fashioned way. But despite their flaws, dating apps do still provide an opportunity to meet new people that isn’t getting wasted and ending up at Jimmy’s. Plus, the future of dating apps may be here sooner than we think: Durham-based dating app Simily, featured in our last edition, aims to move away from the shallowness of many dating apps with the help of AI. Keep an eye on PalatiDates to see it in action soon!

Image: Norma Dorothy via Flickr

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