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The one thing dating apps will give you for sure? Addiction

The dating app hit does not come from guaranteed success, but rather occurs when the reward – in this case, a match – is uncertain.

A Chelsea-based physiotherapist I know saw a young woman complaining of persistent pain in her index finger. Puzzled, he tried to identify what could possibly be straining it. The patient finally admitted, slightly sheepishly, to using Tinder. A lot. The prescription? Switch hands. That will be £200 pounds please... Tinder finger treated, she’s back online for Valentine’s. But just how likely are modern-day lonely hearts to find the love, or even the sex, they seek on their smartphones?

The stats are grim: despite 26 million matches made each day on Tinder alone, Pew data reveal that only five per cent of committed relationships began online. For the vast majority of users, the game itself proves to be more arousing than the other players: fewer than 10 per cent of matches are consummated with even a half-assed “hey”, as users opt to “keep playing” instead of messaging the matches already made. Nearly half of millennials surveyed admitted to using dating apps as “ego-boosting procrastination” rather than to meet people. Perhaps no surprise, then, that – far from the image of a free-love fest at the fingertips propagated by the popular press – singles are having less sex than their counterparts a generation ago, a phenomenon the study’s author, San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, attributes to the apps.

What is it about caressing a touchscreen that has become more compelling than touching another human being? Dating apps have been shown to be pathologically addictive: according to Tinder – by far the market leader – the average user logs in 11 times per day, spending about 77 minutes daily in pursuit of the neurochemical cocktail dished out each time there’s a match. The ding lights up the same pleasure centres in the brain activated by eating chocolate, viewing erotic imagery, or snorting cocaine.

Like any interface in our attention economy, there are “a thousand people on the other side of the screen” whose job it is to keep you hooked, says “design ethicist” Tristan Harris, one of a growing band of ex-tech execs reckoning with the Frankensteins of their creation. Every last detail of the user experience is engineered to keep our hands and eyes glued to the smartphone – from the colours and sounds of notifications to the timing of their receipt. “Let’s admit it: We are all in the persuasion business,” writes gaming entrepreneur Nir Eyal in Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, a playbook of sorts for what has been dubbed “the dark arts of attentional design”. “We call these people users,” he writes.And even if we don’t say it aloud, we secretly wish every one of them would become fiendishly hooked to whatever we’re making.”

Lesson one of Dark Arts 101? The irresistible pull of variable-schedule rewards. The brain releases dopamine not upon the receipt of a reward but in anticipation of it (think dogs salivating at the sound signalling supper). This effect is amplified when the reward – in this case, a match – is uncertain. Research has shown that pigeons presented with a button that produces goodies (pellets of food or doses of drugs) in an unpredictable pattern will peck the heck out of the button, nearly twice as much as when the reward arrives in a predictable manner. Natasha Dow Schüll, a cultural anthropologist who studies gambling addiction, has likened the deliberate design of dating apps to that of slot machines, with the same resultant risk of tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Dopamine was long thought to be the direct source of pleasure, until lab work led by University of Michigan neuroscientist Kent Berridge determined that dopamine is in fact only what motivates the movement toward pleasure – what he refers to as “wanting”. A dopamine-deficient rat won’t get off its metaphoric rat couch to eat if it’s hungry, but will lick its lips in rapture if fed a drop of sugar water on that couch.

Our brains, explains Dr Berridge, are “more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire.” Evolution favours go-getters. But this wiring leaves us susceptible to getting stuck in “wanting” for a long – and not particularly pleasant – time. The more we spend time seeking, whether in search of drugs, sex or dating app dings, “we get less and less pleasure out of it, and the less and less balanced life becomes,” Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscientist and Senior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College at Oxford, told me. “That's the tragedy of addiction. We’re like an animal in a cage trapped in the same circus all the time.”

Online dating apps are truly evolutionarily novel environments,” David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who specialises in the evolution of human sexuality, has said. “But we come to those environments with the same evolved psychologies.” While natural rewards contain built-in satiety signals at consummation (one can only eat/dance/make love for so long), when we’re deliberately kept in the “wanting” phase by persuasive design, there is no signal telling us when to stop. The “infinite scroll” mechanism used by most dating apps takes advantage of this vulnerability by automatically loading the next page so that users don’t have to pause, encouraging them to take just one more hit by swiping on just one more profile, and then another, ad infinitum.

Scientists have come to understand that the brain changes its physical structure as it performs various activities. Repetitive actions set grooves in neural pathways to make them the path of least resistance, allowing the brain to conserve energy. Digital daters get in the habit of automatically opening an app at certain times of the day or as the go-to solution to quell boredom or loneliness, whether or not they’re consciously aware of that feeling. Studies have yet to be conducted on the long-term effects of the dopaminergic excitation of dating apps on the brain (rats don’t have iPhones.) But even small doses of addictive drugs have been shown to lead to long-lasting or even permanent changes in neural circuitry, and behavioural cues are thought to work in much the same way as drugs. Like any addiction, it may not be so easy to walk away. (An acquaintance of mine had made it as far as a third date with a woman, only to be caught on a dating app when his date returned from the toilet.) He’s in good company: 22 per cent of men admit to the offence, according to the dating app company Hinge, although the dopamine hit was probably less powerful than the well-deserved whack he received with her handbag.)

Dating apps may seem harmless, or more efficient than attending an endless string of parties, but users may be sacrificing more satisfying long-term rewards. When singletons forgo face-to-face connection to scroll through avatars, they receive a short-term hit of validation but miss out on social interaction itself: indeed, a majority report feeling lonely after swiping. “There is pleasure in the seeking,” explains Dr Kringelbach. “But the problem is that the effect is drip, drip, drip. This only serves to sustain addiction, rather than leading to real pleasure or satiety.

“It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering,” warns Jaron Lanier, one of the founding fathers of virtual reality. “It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed.” We have gone to great lengths to free ourselves from societal and religious constraints on how and whom to love, only to outsource the most intimate of our endeavours to a handful of (predominantly) dudes in the Valley. And their interests lie not in our flourishing love lives, but in their bottom line.

Mia Levitin writes about love and technology. Follow her @MiaLevitin.

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”