“It’s funny,” she says, “because being single is your natural state but being in a relationship is an add-on to you, so it’s quite odd that the reverse is considered more unusual.” While dating apps enable us to bypass the serendipity of “true love” and instead to actively seek the perfect relationship, what keeps many of us engaged, once drawn in, is a phenomenon that breeds inefficiency in the search.The psychologist Michael Zeiler found in 1971 that pigeons peck at a button nearly twice as much when it produces food pellets at an unpredictable frequency than when the rewards are foreseeable.
“Think back on your bedtime stories as a child,” he writes, “and I bet these words are lodged somewhere in your brain: ‘…and they fell in love, got married, and lived happily ever after.’ These imagined happy endings stick with us as adults.” Viren Swami, social psychology professor at Anglia Ruskin University, argues that dating apps often work as outlets to pursue such “happy endings”.
“The pressure to be in relationships,” Swami says, “and the perception that there is something ‘wrong’ with remaining single, can create a drive or need to be on dating apps.” But far from easing the discontent of being single, many young people feel that dating apps have amplified it.
“I feel like I do have some weird sense of obligation to meet someone,” he says.
“Even though this is the longest I’ve ever been single and it’s probably the happiest I’ve ever been.” Tiffany, a 22-year-old who works for a travel startup, agrees that dating apps make it more difficult to be content in single life.
At the University of Southern California in 2011, two undergraduates Sean Rad and Justin Mateen had an idea for an online game. Tinder claims to have hosted more than 30bn matches, with 2bn swipes a day and a million dates a week.
The interface would resemble a deck of cards, but the cards wouldn’t show suits or numbers. Badoo users aged 18 to 30 spend an estimated ten hours a week on dating apps.
Sure, it would be more efficient and it would bring potential matches together more quickly. Variable rewards are part of a greater, and somewhat, paradoxical mission – not necessarily to find you a perfect match, but to keep you on the app. Tinder’s free service, for instance, explicitly restricts the number of likes a user can give out each day without paying for more. Results from an experiment conducted last year by communication scientists Cédric Courtois and Elisabeth Timmermans suggest that Tinder’s non-paying users don’t necessarily create more matches or see more attractive profiles when they engage in more swipe activity (the number of likes a user gives, weighted by the number of profiles they see).
Tinder, the paper argues, seems to deliberately limit further communication by preventing attractive profiles and liked profiles from running out too soon.
Alex Durrant, who runs the dating app Jig Talk, believes dating apps shift their priority when they move from a growth mindset to a focus on revenue.
“In the early stages, when there are high growth periods,” Durrant says, “dating apps need to work; they need a real positive impact in the early stage.
Whether you want to meet young professionals (Inner Circle) or want women to make the first move (Bumble), whether you harbour ambitions to appear on the next season of Made in Chelsea (Toffee) or want to explore your kinks (Feeld), whether you prefer to nuzzle facial hair (Bristlr) or seek your perfect biological match (DNA Romance), whether you want to share conspiracy theories about crop circles and chemtrails (Awake Dating) or just do things the traditional, old-fashioned way (Tinder), there is something for everyone.