An Interview With Tinder’s In-House Sociologist

How, why and with whom we fall in love is one of life’s greatest mysteries – and never more so than today, as technology renders romance and all its possibilities seemingly boundless. As the in-house sociologist of revolutionary dating app Tinder, Dr. Jessica Carbino is one of the most qualified experts on the subject of modern love. And by 'love' I don’t mean one-night stands: as Carbino is swift to inform me, when we meet over coffee at the Rosewood Hotel in London, 88% of Tinder’s current users are “looking for a relationship that’s more serious in nature”. In fact, it was while using the app herself to try and find a partner that Carbino stumbled across Sean Rad, Tinder's CEO, and inadvertently secured her current role. “I was finishing my dissertation work at UCLA in 2013 and was single and on Tinder,” she explains. “I came across Sean and thought, ‘Wow, he’s really cute’, and then I noticed that he was the founder of Tinder and was even more interested because at the time I was studying online dating and facial attractiveness and so many other things that were directly related to Tinder.” As it turned out, Sean was in a relationship and was simply using the app to better understand the user experience; but while he wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, he was looking for a sociologist. “He said, ‘Jess, you seem really interesting. I’d love for you to come to the office and meet me.’ So I went to the office, had an interview and had a job about 30 minutes later. It was my best match on Tinder!” Carbino laughs. Since then, she has been busy exploring what users want from their digital dating experience, and the complex psychology behind the left and right swipe. We spoke to the 30-year-old Philadelphia native to find out exactly what her job entails, how dating habits change around Christmas time and whether or not there is a science to attraction.

What does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?
It’s variable. My research is very content analytic in nature, but I really specialise in trying to understand the experience of the people who are using Tinder. So I do content analyses of photos and messages (we take the privacy of our users incredibly seriously so every time I am conducting my research I get the user’s permission); I conduct focus groups and interviews with our users, and generally try to understand how the user is interacting with the product and how we can improve it.
So what kind of studies do you conduct? I recently finished a study where I was trying to understand what makes the most successful profile photo. Because there are so many things that we do in photographs or can learn about others through photographs that we’re not necessarily aware of. So I analysed over 150 variables in over 12,000 profile photographs – ranging from whether or not the user was seated with other people, if they were at a bar or outside, or if they were exercising to how their head was tilted or whether it wasn’t tilted – and one of the really interesting findings was that so many of the characteristics that make a profile photo more successful are really consistent with what we would expect to find in daily life. So for example, smiling is a really critical factor in creating a successful profile photo because it makes you seem more approachable. So the duckface is out, it doesn’t work – but smiling does!

How do you notice people’s dating habits changing around Christmas time?
Interestingly, on November 25th, we usually begin to see a 10% spike in the use of Tinder, which persists throughout the middle of December. Then we see this really big spike beginning around the New Year and continuing through Valentine’s Day, so clearly during the holiday season and around this time of year, people are really thinking about forming a relationship or making meaningful connections.
Why do you think that is? Social pressures, the cold weather... It’s really related to this idea that when people are going home for the holidays they are going to be exposed to a lot of couples. People see how other people are coupled and they want to be as well. It’s curious to think about other factors that may be motivating as well, and certainly this idea of people having concerns regarding the weather and acting in a way that’s more consistent with finding a partner – someone to hibernate with – could be a contributing factor.

How would you say the digital age has affected our ideas about love and our approach to dating?
People are definitely thinking about love differently today. Historically, we’ve thought about it on the basis of two paradigms: the idea of romantic love, which is what we see in film, literature, television; and the idea of prosaic love – of how love operates in our daily lives, whether it’s through our own lived experiences or the observations we’ve made about others’. And both of those perceptions of love were believed to inform our relationships. However, when those studies were done to try and understand how people think and talk about love, they were only looking at couples that were already partnered. Today, so many couples have delayed partnership that that concept really misses the ‘market perspective’, whereby young people now have the opportunity to encounter thousands or even millions of potential partners, whom they otherwise never would have met, because of Tinder and other apps. It’s absolutely fascinating to think how people’s preferences and behaviours can theoretically be influenced by so many more options.

So are people’s expectations a lot higher nowadays, in terms of what they look for in a partner?
Well, what’s interesting is that the real shift in terms of increased expectations of a partner began in the 1960s, so it’s been happening for quite some time – because of there being more liberal attitudes regarding partnership and women’s roles and so forth. So that’s not just to do with modern dating, but expectations have definitely increased.

Can there be any science to attraction if it's all run on algorithm?

Absolutely, Tinder’s algorithm is based upon the science of attraction. It primarily operates on the basis of intelligent swiping so the more you use Tinder, the more we are able to learn about you, and then we base our recommendations on the preferences you’re selecting via swiping left or right. So while you will see everyone that you’ve selected within the subset of our users who meet the criteria you’ve set – age, gender, geography – in terms of the prioritisation of those potential matches, we are presenting users to you who are more consistent with who you believe is attractive based upon your swiping.

How would you describe the science of attraction, then, in layman’s terms?

Well, I can’t really say how the algorithm works, only that it’s very much based upon how you are swiping already, but in terms of how we as humans assess people and who interests us, there are so many scientific processes behind it. One of the major processes in the analysis of attraction is 'thin-slicing', whereby we take very small slices of information based upon cues from photographs or seeing someone in person and very quickly make a judgment about who we believe this person is, whether or not we believe they’re somebody who would be compatible with us, and whether or not we believe the person would also find us to be compatible with them. So it’s a very rich process that is actually highly accurate. In fact a great deal of research indicates that the judgment you make within three seconds of seeing somebody is the same judgment you would make after speaking with them for three minutes or speaking with them for 30 minutes!

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