This Is Your Brain On Tinder

Photographed by Megan Madden.
HBO's new documentary, Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, paints a pretty bleak picture of what it's like to use dating apps today. Every point the movie makes — that lots of people (men especially) use dating apps just for hookups, that there are plenty of cheaters on dating apps, that online dating is more difficult (and dangerous) if you're Black or transgender or have another marginalized identity, and more — is valid. But, it's pretty easy to make counterarguments for these pessimistic views. Yes, terrible people exist on the internet, but they exist in real life, too. And dating apps do make meeting people easier (especially for people with oppressed identities).
But one part of the documentary is impossible to argue against: the fact that dating apps deliberately make online dating feel like a video game. Applying game-like qualities to something that isn't meant to be a game (like when teachers made you play Jeopardy in class or when you score "points" during a workout video) is called gamification, and it takes advantage of the reward areas of our brains. On many dating apps, matching with someone results in bright colors, upbeat noises, and maybe even dazzling lights. That's deliberate. "When you're playing a slot machine, the machine will tell you when you've won with ringing bells and flashing lights," Adam Alter, a social psychologist at New York University, said in the documentary. "And a lot of the apps we use now have elements of that built in, even when they aren't really about games."
As one Tinder user in the documentary said, getting a match feels like a little rush of adrenaline. And that's because of those game-like qualities. Matching with someone on Tinder, Bumble, and many other dating apps is designed to make you feel like you've won something, and winning typically does flood your brain with adrenaline. The rush you feel when you hear the bleep-bloop of a new match makes want to keep playing, which is ultimately better for the dating apps. "Having unpredictable, yet frequent awards is the best way to motivate somebody to keep moving forward," Tinder co-founder Jonathan Badeen said in the documentary. In fact, the number one reason people use Tinder is for entertainment, not finding a relationship like you might expect. Tinder expert Elisabeth Timmermans, PhD, found in her research that looking for love was actually the fourth most common reason people were on the app, following amusement, curiosity, and socialization.
Of course, we can't blame the apps alone for people's impulse to keep swiping. "It’s not just the apps that might influence how people use a dating apps or whether they will be susceptible to the addictive components, but also other factors such as people’s personality characteristics," Dr. Timmermans says to Refinery29. Apps are simply playing off of people's inherent psychology, and not everyone will be enchanted by the flashing lights. For example, Dr. Timmermans' research found that people who score high on narcissism in personality tests are more likely to use Tinder to boost their egos.
Regardless of your narcissism score, it's easy to understand how dating apps can provide an ego boost, and why that might make swiping feel addictive. After all, getting a match is like instant validation that someone finds you attractive, and it feels better and better the more people swipe right on your photos. But being connected to so many potential relationships also messes with your brain. "Having access to such a big dating pool of course also has psychological consequences," Dr. Timmermans says. "Dating apps give users the impression that their dating choices are endless." The old cliché that "there are plenty of fish in the sea," suddenly feels literal. And that can lead people to wonder if they're making the right choice when they settle down with someone, Dr. Timmermans says. "You could even connect this to commitment fear, because you are more likely to think that there might be someone better for you out there," she says. Timmermans and her colleagues learned in their research that a significant number of people who are in committed relationships continue to use dating apps, some to look for casual sex and some simply looking for that ego boost.
When dating apps are built like games, is it really any wonder that people in happy relationships are still tempted to swipe? One couple in the HBO documentary spells it out perfectly when they choose to open their relationship and try to find a woman who'd have casual sex with them. After her boyfriend gives a deep explanation about how they want a third to make sure there are no restrictions on their relationship, a woman named Alex says, "Also, it's fun because we get to play on Tinder again."

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