Since its initial release five years ago the online dating mobile app Tinder has become extraordinarily popular, with an estimated 50 million monthly users. People use the app to find both potential partners and casual hookups, and as such it has become the single most downloaded lifestyle app in the country for the past two years.
Why is Tinder so satisfying to you was to the millions of people use it every day? It could have something to do with the psychology of the people who use it every day, or it could be related to how the app itself is designed. Truthfully, it’s likely a bit of both. Tinder is designed with algorithms that exploit the psychology of its targeted user base, much as many other social networking sites do.
How Does Tinder Function?
Dating websites or OKCupid or eHarmony tried to match users together based off of responses to an in-depth series of questions and personal information. By contrast, Tinder functions simply by matching users together based off of their approximate location on the globe and then matching users together if two users approve each other by “swiping right”. Tinder generates a massive number of photos of other users and allows them to swipe left on the photo to reject them or swipe right on them to indicate interest. If two users both swipe right, they are matched with one another and can begin messaging each other. The simplicity of this system means that is extremely simple to rate hundreds of users in only a few minutes, as most users of Tinder make their decisions after only a second-long look at a photo.
Tinder’s Design and Reinforcement
The fact that Tinder’s user interface is extremely simple means that users don’t get lost or distracted by a massive amount of information. The interface of Tinder has been perfectly constructed to facilitate rapid swiping and rating. The speed of rating is used in conjunction with a “variable ratio reward schedule” to ensure using Tinder has an addictive quality to it. A variable ratio reward schedule means that the potential “reward” (defined here as a match with another user) of any given action is so unpredictable as to seem random.
The promise of reward is a powerful motivator, and this system of seemingly random rewards encourages addiction. This is a well-known facet of human psychology, and video games and slot machines are frequently designed to take advantage of this aspect of our psychology. Systems that generate random rewards in video games have actually been referred to as “Skinner boxes” by some, referencing B.F. Skinner’s experiments with pigeons, where Skinner found that by providing pigeons with random rewards and stimuli elicited strange patterns of behavior. The pigeons would turn in circles, believing the act of doing so would cause them to be rewarded, when in reality the rewards were entirely unrelated to their actions. Frequently slot machines, video games, and apps like Tinder are designed so that the reward comes almost randomly, but it feels as if it responds to our actions in a limited way.
It isn’t only Tinder that uses psychological tricks to encourage the continued use of its platform. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and more all use methods of design that exploit our addictive habits and desires for reward stimulation. Marketing researchers at social media firms frequently employ something called “A/B testing”. A/B testing refers to making subtle tweaks to the design of a website or platform and showing it to only certain people. Random users will see Version A of the site while others will see Version B of the site. Data will be collected and analyzed on the behavior of the two different groups. If the changes to a website’s design shown to Group A encourage certain desired behavior, those changes will be incorporated into the full version of the site. This means that over time A/B testing results in a design which is irresistible to the average person.
The systems which elicit this addictive behavior are frequently employed in social media apps and sites, including Tinder. Research conducted on the brains of drug addicts has found that the mere expectation of a drug could actually release the same amount of dopamine or even more dopamine than using the drug itself. Dopamine is one of the “happiness” chemicals found in the brain, and experiencing its effects frequently reinforces a behavior. Tinder swiping has a similar addictive quality, with anxiety and frustration setting in for those who cannot swipe as often as they would like.
Some research suggests that men, in particular, are more likely to become addicted to Tinder swiping, as men tend to mass-swipe more than women do. Men often show an increased desire for short-term dating or mating than women do, though women certainly desire these things as well. This means that men spend more time with platforms that enable quick, low-investment methods of pursuing mates. This is exactly what Tinder allows for. Women seem to be more discerning with their swipes, as the average matching rate for a woman is 10.5% while the average matching rate for a man is 0.6%, even if both are of similar attractiveness.
The constant addictive use of Tinder could be having negative effects on self-esteem, at least according to a recent study. Frequent users of Tinder reported that they were less satisfied with their bodies and looks, and in general had less perceived self-worth. The researchers asked 1300 students like “How satisfied are you with your thighs?” and “How likely are you to make physical comparisons to others?” Students who used Tinder frequently were much more likely to indicate lower self-esteem when responding to these questions. These effects were particularly pronounced in men, who showed lower self-esteem than the women who used Tinder, though the women who used tinder also indicated lower self-esteem on average.
None of this is to say that users of Tinder don’t get any benefit out of it. There is a convenience that comes with using the dating app, but users of the app should know how it may be impacting them and make intelligent decisions about how they use it.