A day after the New Year, the holiday aisle of drugstores gets a makeover: oversized bears and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate under painfully bright fluorescent light; it’s last-minute saving grace for forgetful valentines.
As a clinical psychologist, I’ve seen people from all walks of life walk through my door yearning for love, clinging to dysfunctional relationships, and struggling with heartache. Carefully dodging emotional arrows and stepping over broken hearts, relationship labels become the impenetrable armor that fiercely protects our fragile self-esteem on the dating battlefield. The lucky ones who survive may walk away with partners, embarking on another journey to learn the secrets of lasting relationships.
We live in a time when algorithms know our deepest desires: they recommend restaurants you might like, nudge you into buying things on your wish list but out of your budget, and tell you where to vacation. Algorithms can even help us find love, and apparently it’s becoming more and more common. According to a nationally representative study published in 2019, approximately 39% of heterosexual couples met through dating sites in 2017, an increase of 17% from 2009 (Rosenfeld, Thomas, & Hausen, 2019). Netflix’s new documentary ‘Tinder Swindler’ tells the real-life story of a con man posing as a wealthy and handsome billionaire who preyed on his victims’ desire for love. It exposes the flaws of online dating; its gamified interface captivates our insatiable needs for novelty and validation.
Dating apps are “pocket” slots
In search of love, the index finger becomes the frontline soldier. Swiping left is the polite gesture for dismissing potential suitors without the emotional sting. Uncomfortable emotions are avoided by applying as many layers of armor (i.e. filters) as possible – age, height, religion, political preference, etc. Swiping right is the ultimate mating dance, and the instant “match” symbol triggers the release of a cascade of neurotransmitters, including a flood of dopamine, a powerful reward agent that underlies many addictive behaviors ( Beck, 2021). You’d probably delete a dating app where hours of swiping results in no matches, as much as you’d walk away from an app where every swipe turns into a match. The gamification of dating apps turns the act of swiping into a highly rewarded activity similar to slot machines, where winning (i.e. matching) takes place at random intervals which would in turn act as a powerful reinforcement that makes us want more (Skinner, 1972).
While the purpose of dating was to find partners to build deeper relationships, dating algorithms capitalized on turning dating itself into a low-cost, high-reward addictive game.
Dating algorithms make us appreciate superficial qualities instead of giving others the benefit of the doubt
If you make it through the seductive siren song of the dating app, it’s time to go on a date to meet the person behind the screen. Many people have developed “dating algorithms” over time, a list of red flags to watch out for. Who paid the bill? Did the other person seem overly enthusiastic or impatient? Did they text you immediately after the first date or leave you on “read” for three days before responding? Each detail becomes a new set of filter criteria to determine if you will see that person again. The endless dating pool also means it’s never been easier to “ghost” someone or send a well-crafted text message to avoid an awkward conversation before heading off on the dating safari.
Algorithms have provided humanity with profound opportunities to connect. Faced with the pandemic, I couldn’t imagine what the world would be like without social networks or virtual space. However, as a psychologist whose job it is to help individuals foster deeper and better relationships, I fear that having algorithms that adapt to our preferences means that we lose sight of our values, the space to have difficult conversations or the courage to embrace emotional vulnerability. At the macro level, we express our concerns about an increasingly divided world. At the micro level, we are immune to confronting differences by dating algorithms with each filter layer applied. We limit ourselves to being challenged and we close ourselves to differences. In my clinical experience, successful relationships are often not based on similarities, but rather on the ability to tolerate and reconcile differences.
Surprisingly, I am a romantic and far from a dating cynic who is here to uncover the disillusionment of modern relationships. I have witnessed what love is capable of when a relationship is secure: we can afford to take risks knowing that we can return to safety; we can dare to make mistakes knowing that there is compassion on the other side. Algorithms can foster connections when used with thoughtful intent and openness to differences. The need for connection is ingrained in our DNA, and the relentless striving to seek love and belonging is our shared identity.
For the next date, try to pay more attention to each swipe, apply one less filter criteria, and have a difficult conversation in person.