Do Dating Apps Affect Relationship Decision Making?

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Oct 03, 2018

"‘Good relationships are not born out of complex algorithms, because attraction is unpredictable…’ (Joel, Eastwick, and Finkel 2017)"

Times are changing, people are becoming more tech savvy and are living fast paced and busy lives. Increased work hours and more demanding responsibilities often impedes on our ability to socialise, consequentially creating a negative impact on personal life. One such impediment that is becoming more common is the ability to seek a potential relationship or life partner.

Evidence of this emerging difficulty can be seen with the boom of online dating smartphone apps such as Tinder, Badoo, and Plenty of fish. Such apps seek to resolve this growing disparity between work and social life, allowing the individual to scour over potential matches whilst on their commute, at their desk, or on their sofa.

A survey conducted by Statista (2017) showed that these three platforms rank in the top 4 alongside, where regular respondent usage ranged between 32 – 45% of singles. With increased popularity, and reduced stigma, around their use – online dating apps have fundamentally changed the dating landscape. However, change can often bring about new risks.

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The Risks of Virtual Dating 

Creating a culture of short-term relationships that never truly materialise may subsequently have a negative effect on well-being and mental health, especially as 1 in 6 individuals reportedly develop a mental health problem such as anxiety over their lives (Stansfeld et al 2016). Such increases in anxiety may arise from concerns of self-esteem that come under fire from poor quality conversations, dates, and relationships that create doubts of self-image. Considering how issues such as these are hastened by dating apps, it is necessary to ask are dating apps improve relationships, and if not, how can they be improved?

Behavioral science is well equipped to explore this domain through the collaboration of economics, psychology, and sociology to understand individuals dating choices and behaviors.  Despite many longstanding clichés of love being a function of the heart, it is now widely accepted and observed to be a function of the brain (Bartels and Zeki 2000; Zeki 2007).

Individuals consider an array of multiple factors that make the perfect romantic match, such as their personality, hobbies, interests, and physical aspects to name a few. These aspects therefore lend themselves to a series of biases and heuristics that influence decision making, and ultimately may produce romantic outcomes that create imperfect or even negative relationships.

For instance, behavioral science explores the role of visceral factors – such as love – on decision making, showing how these temporary states of arousal lend themselves to behaviors which deviate from individuals stated preferences. This was famously shown by Ariely and Loewenstein (2006), who through a series of experiments on male students, showed that ‘sexual arousal has a strong impact on all three areas of judgement and decision making’ characterized as the heat of the moment effect (Ariely and Loewenstein, 2006).

By understanding the mechanisms of such cognitive barriers, behavioral science is perfectly suited to express not only why these decisions are made, but how these can be overcome with potential interventions. The amalgamation of economic decision making, psychological states of emotions, and sociological factors of relationships allows for the mixture of rivalling practices to be combined in a multidisciplinary and scientific way.

In doing so, behavioral science can seek to develop novel and unique insights into how love and emotions play a role in our lives and the current dating climate.

Plenty of Fish, or Too Many?

So, what are the behavioral mechanisms behind the use of dating apps? And how can they induce negative emotional outcomes? One behavioral tendency considers the ease and convenience dating platforms offer and in particular, the sheer volume of information presented when making choices of potential partners, seen with Tinder and Badoo respectively receiving 57 million U.K users in 2017 (Belton, 2018).

This concept is called the paradox of choice, where an increased freedom of choice – in this case, choice of people – results in decreased subjective well-being (Schwartz 2004). This paradox has been witnessed when individuals are choosing between types of jam. When given the choice of either 24 or 6 kinds of jam, there was a significant reduction in purchases by respondents presented with 24 compared to 6 (Iynegar and Lepper 2000).

Evidence from Schawrtz (2004) and Iyneger and Lepper (2000) shows that this paradox occurs due to inherent difficulties humans have in managing complex choices. Increasing the number of attractive alternatives – such as picking an alternative, deferring the option, choosing the default or opting out – has been shown to increase the level of internal conflict in decision making (Shafir, Simonsen and Tversky, 1993). Furthermore, the behavioral tendency of narrow framing exacerbates this difficulty, meaning that when more alternatives are presented, individuals tend to use a rule of thumb based on a small sample of all alternatives (Hauser and Wernerfelt, 1990).

While experimenting with jams can be considered somewhat crude, the paradox can be applied to dating apps. The sheer volume facilitates the tendency to increase the likelihood of objectification and ill-advised decisions (Finkel et al. 2012), allocating a preference for rushed choices in light of a mass of potential candidates. This can be seen with individuals potentially swiping right for all candidates, leading to choices being made without considerable thought or none at all.

With this notion, the user may seem confused to why they have been matched with certain individuals, due to a lack of consideration when swiping through individuals in such a hasty manner and looking at individuals on face value.

Is Desire Feasible?

In line with a focusing on skin deep features, a second behavioral principle involved in dating app decision making is the concept of construal level theory (Liberman and Trope 1998). Construal level theory (CLT) defined as ‘an account of how psychological distance influences individual thoughts and behavior’ (Trope and Liberman 2010) where objects and contexts are interpreted as either being low or high level.

A low level of construal provides focus on the core details of an object or context, such as the color, temperature, or size. In contrast, a high level of construal takes focus on overarching perceptions, and essentially differ between looking at objective details or the bigger picture.

By exploring  the foundations of CLT, it has been shown that levels of construal are affected through different domains of psychological distance – such as time, space, social, and hypothetical – that alter individual perception and factors associated with decision making (Wakslak, Liberman, and Trope 2006; Malkoc, Zauberman, and Bettman 2010). In relation to dating apps, the use of a computer-mediated-communication platform (Finkel et al. 2012) on a smartphone creates an increase in spatial and social distance, and therefore a higher level of construal.

Additionally, different weightings are given to different objects depending on the level of psychological distance concerning their attributes. Through a series of 5 different choice experiments targeting pre, intra, and post decision making, Lu, Xie, and Xu (2012) found that concerns of desirability receive a greater weighting over more feasible attributes as psychological distance increases, consistent with past research into CLT (Todorov, Green, and Trope 2007).

This impression highlights that when individuals make choices on dating platforms – with greater psychological distance – more desirable features such as looks and physical attributes are emphasized over their feasible counterparts including personality and other deeper individual differences. Consequentially, this may lead to choices being made based on incomplete evidence of the whole individual, potentially leading to sub-optimal outcomes such as regret after a date, contributing to future communications or long-term intimacies breaking down.


By discussing two potential behavioral mechanisms that play a role in emotional decision making, what can be done to try and mitigate these biases? One recommendation worthy of exploration would be to integrate methods of improving the level of information given to users.

The concept of salience is widely used in the world of behavioral science (Behavioral Insights Team. 2014), and could be applied to this domain by utilizing personality and compatibility tests. With this notion, Piasecki and Hanna (2011) propose an alteration to defining the paradox of choice to a lack of meaningful choices instead of the volume of choices leading to negative outcomes.

Providing a salient personality or compatibly score may allow for some potential matches to be more meaningful due to the initial perception that the two users are well suited to each other, allowing users to better allocate their time to candidates more likely to produce positive emotional outcomes, filtering down the pool of choice, and the paradox. Likewise, looking at matches on a personality / compatibility basis lends the user to be considering more feasible factors over the desirable, potentially altering behavior through different levels of construal.

Taking this idea further, it has recently been announced that the dating platform Badoo is set to scrap the mainstream swipe-interface for the use of a live stream feature, called Badoo Live (Lomas, 2018). Based on a survey of 5,000 users aged 18 – 30, Badoo found that the widely common swiping interface and use of photos lacks the “real” experience that is ascertained from a real-life scenarios (Peat, 2018).

By adding these features, Badoo has taken the first step into overcoming the current barriers to positive emotional outcomes on dating apps. The use of the live stream feature reduces the psychological distance of matches with the face-to-face communication, providing a better platform for meaningful and genuine conversations that are not over a series of texts.

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In conclusion, despite being highly convenient, dating apps can easily result in ill-advised romantic decisions due to a cognitive overload of options and abstract thinking which produce choice inconsistencies between a screen and reality. Despite concerns being raised of the apps impact on mental well-being, time is a finite resource, and these dating apps can provide a solid platform for meeting new people in a world where loneliness is a pressing social concern.

As seen with the recent innovations from the platform Badoo, changes are being made to try and replicate face-to-face meetings of the past. Ultimately, one may expect these technological advances to give rise for a virtual reality interface, where dates can be had in virtual space, recreating a face to face scenario on the go or in the comfort of the home.


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About the Author

Charlie Nixon portrait

Charlie Nixon

University of Stirling · Behavioral Science

Charlie completed a BA (Hons) in Business Studies at Leeds Beckett University, progressing to an MSc in Behavioural Science at the University of Stirling. Charlie is now looking to start a career in the world of behavioural science application. This journey has been kickstarted by being invited to the 2018 Ogilvy Change Summer School in London, working with real clients in an research consultancy role.

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