The Lose–Lose Game of Online Dating Apps

In 1993, way before online dating became a rising phenomenon, a study conducted by David Buss and David Schmitt from the University of Texas at Austin and Brunel University London, respectively, coined the term ‘sexual strategies theory.’ 

In short, the study examines layers of reasoning why female humans are a lot choosier than their male counterparts, especially in short-term matings. There’s a vast difference in how men and women behave in relationships. 

The researchers explain two strong points: should the flings go south, men a.) do not biologically have a breathing flesh growing inside them for nine months. And b.) they do not have as high expectations raising them according to the patriarchal society belief.

Decades later, as humans entered a whole new era of technology where the mating pool is easily adjustable with fingertips, the study has been proven again in the online world. Dating apps have changed society’s viewpoint on love, for better or worse, and what it could mean for future generations.

Paradox of choice in online dating

The cover Singles News, the largest singles newspaper in New York, 1976
The cover of Singles News, the largest newspaper for single people in New York, 1976

Advertising for love has a long history in our society. Before Tinder and co took over back in the time, people used to have a ‘dating advertisement’ column on newspapers where singles looking for love would advertise themselves. Or, they’d call their favorite music radio stations to land ‘matches.’

However, it wasn’t until the late 2000s and early 2010s when the internet became more accessible to many that online dating saw the number of users skyrocket. But, what is ‘being successful’ in dating apps? What does it mean? Does having a lot of matches or one-night stands count as one?

If so, then it’s highly possible to fall into this type of booby-trap of online dating: the paradox of choice. It’s a term to describe the stressful feeling of having too many options to choose from and the possibility of facing the failure of goal achievement. Contrary to the popular belief that it could make them happier, giving humans too many options actually make them more miserable

In short, we don’t know what to pick because the mating pool is broad and adjustable with just one swipe away. It’s technically possible to date anyone dated 18 above from these apps regardless of geographic proximity, but in return, we’d always hold out for someone or something better, and thus makes us end up with nothing. Instead of letting it be a slow-burner, we’d quickly call things off & give up from a person if we don’t feel an instant spark & attraction in it. It’s the butterflies or nothing.

Ironically, as this paradox proves, while dating apps help us connect with people we wouldn’t have met otherwise, they also paradoxically make things a lot more difficult for creating real connections.

Without undermining dating apps’ success stories, they help us meet more people, not more of the right people. 

In the end, because of that, we start treating people like commodities instead of actual human beings with ideas, flaws, and imperfections. We would focus on their tiny under-conscious imperfection rather than looking at the bigger picture & what a person is all about because why not? The sky is the limit and the grass is always greener on the other side. They’re as easily disposable with just one swipe away.

Self-confidence & trust issues 

Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice in 2004 (Pic: TED Talk/YouTube)
Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice. (Pic: TED Talk/YouTube)

What happens when you’re on the other side of the coin? What happens when you’re one of the ‘unlucky’ people on the apps?

There has been a massive & harrowing inequality for both genders, statistically speaking. For example, Tinder has 75 million monthly active users per-2021 report, with gen Z and millennial generations dominating the landscape. In the US alone, 75% of the apps’ users are male compared to 25% of females. Statisticians predict the number to increase, especially amidst the ongoing health crisis where it’s harder to socially connect with people. 

In other words, especially in heterosexual relationships, fierce competition among men on these apps does exist on an astronomical level. To be with women of their age, males in their late teenage years or early 20s have to compete with their older counterparts who have more wealth, more life experience, and more societal upper-hands.

While women do seem to have the upper hands due to nature, it does not always end well. In contrary to men struggling to land matches, this entire fiasco could lead women into thinking that guys only want nothing but a quick “fuck-and-dump” fling and nobody longs for real connection anymore, resulting in an even worse trust issue.

Then, as mentioned, everything boils down to the matter of self-confidence and trust issues for both genders, respectively. A lot of what’s and why’s start popping up, “What is wrong with me?” “Why am I not getting any matches?” “Am I not looking good enough?”, or if you’re a female, “Why do men always want one-night stands?” “Why am I being ghosted all the time?,” and “Why everybody is wasting my time?.”

In the end, we’d become a person we really are not just to be ‘successful’ on these apps. Being socially anxious and lonely can lead to many compulsive decisions on dating apps, which can lead to harmful effects for the short and the long run. 

Such a fact may also result in social anxiety and prolonged loneliness. It is a slow-but-lethal weapon of self-destruction that ravages our body and brain. A 2020 study from McGill University and Oxford University shows being isolated impacts our psychological well-being, as well as impairing the immune system and shortening life expectancy. 

Online dating is a massive money-making industry

Co-founder and CEO of Bumble Whitney Wolfe speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY in 2016 (Pic: Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)
Co-founder and CEO of Bumble Whitney Wolfe speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY in 2016 (Pic: Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

The fact that the picture section takes up almost the whole screen of our phones on dating apps is a lead that they’re superficial by design. What matters the most here is how to “sell” yourself online. It’s all about putting pictures, bios, and interesting facts that could get more swipes.

During any social setting in real life, the decision to give our time to get to know a new person can take a while. We’d have to see what the person is all about at first glance or after a few meetings. On dating apps, these massive decisions are being made in a matter of a few seconds.

On Tinder, for example, the algorithm of creating matches is not accidental. It has a system that calculates the ‘attractiveness’ score that a profile has, and the more you have, the most likely your profile will pop up in others. Then, as time progresses and you get addicted to this illusion of progress, the matches will dry up eventually by design. The app knows that you’re already addicted so it narrows your match pipe, leaving you craving for those little jets of dopamine. 

What’s next? You want your profile to keep popping in others and you want to know who’d swiped right on you. Unfortunately, features like “Super Like,” “Rewind,” and “Boost” are only available for paid users. This “psychological flaw” is where Tinder, like many other apps, is making most of its fortunes.

In 2020 alone, dating apps have made over $3,08 billion in revenue with Tinder leading the pack with $1,4 billion. The app is owned by Match Group Inc, a tech company that operates Tinder, Match.com, OkCupid, and many other online dating platforms. Its competitor, Bumble, whose founder Whitney Wolfe Herd left Tinder over sexual harassment, is the closest rival. 

The online dating industry is the future of relationships, like it or not, and it’s a big money conversation. 

Final verdict: What should I do if I’m too deep in the game already?

Tinder’s parent company, Match Group (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

In short, being successful or unsuccessful on dating apps comes down to a lose-and-lose conclusion for most users, especially when a real connection is something that’s longed for. We’re slowly mitigating loneliness when relying too much on them to find partners. In the end, it’s those apps and policymakers who benefit the most as we, as human beings, have been rapidly shifting our activities into the online world.

In fact, another study conducted by UK-based organization Marriage Foundation in 2020 shows that married couples that met online have a higher chance of divorce within the first three years by 12%, compared to their counterparts who meet through others (2%). Those numbers increase to 17% and 10% respectively after seven years.

See Also

This doesn’t necessarily condemn the presence of dating apps at all. They’re indeed helpful, especially during the pandemic time when it’s harder than ever to connect. Many of us have almost forgotten what life was like before it and dating apps have eventually helped people stay sane during this crazy time. This also doesn’t mean to undermine the success stories that these apps have helped make. 

However, as helpful as they are, taking dating apps with a grain of salt is the best approaching mentality. Treat them as one of the mediums instead of being so life-dependent on them. Stop beating yourself up. Be more involved in the community. Be more present. Break free. Join events. Participate in the real world. See around, there’s so much more to this place called earth than what we could possibly comprehend.

Great relationships should be a slow burner: two people meet and it gets slowly better and more passionate over time. Love after first sight is such a wonderful concept on the paper, but what happens after boy meets girl? What happens when the spark dies down?

It’s not the butterflies in the stomach that gets your dopamine pumping, but the feel of warmth and safety that you feel around the person, something which is almost impossible to achieve throughout the superficial attraction. Online dating is a game and we, the players from whatever gender, are mostly on the losing side.

Bibliography (Further interesting readings in online dating)

Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less, HarperCollins, New York, 2004. 

Danilo Bzdok, Robin Dunbar, The Neurobiology of Social Distance, in Trends in Cognitive Science, Cell Press Reviews, 2020. 

David Buss, David Schmitt, Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating, in Psychological Review, 1993. 

Harry Benson, Relative Strangers: The Importance of Social Capital for Marriage, in The Marriage Foundation, United Kingdom, 2021. 

Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Tinder algorithm, explained, in Vox, https://www.vox.com/2019/2/7/18210998/tinder-algorithm-swiping-tips-dating-app-science (December 16, 2021). 

Kathryn D. Coduto et al., Swiping for trouble: Problematic dating application use among psychosocially distraught individuals and the paths to negative outcomes, in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2020. 

Yu-Chin Her, Elisabeth Timmermans, Tinder blue, mental flu? Exploring the associations between Tinder use and well-being, in Taylor & Francis Online, 2020. 

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