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.