Is Your Dating App Bringing Out Your Delusional Energy?

Whether you download a dating app as a last resort in a moment of existential panic or in the earnest hope that you’ll discover your soulmate, it’s likely that you’ll soon feel overwhelmed.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
Pexels/Mesut çiçen

No matter what specific filters you apply to narrow your pool, your lineup is soon inundated by every type of single man out there. Tall, short, religious, wealthy. Athletic guys, fishing guys, nerdy guys. Slobs, snazzy dressers. Men standing on top of mountains, boys with their arm around their sisters or college ex-girlfriends. It’s exciting but, at the same time, a little disconcerting. How do you find a soulmate with an infinite number of options at your fingertips?

Then, with a few bad dates under your belt and your thumb sore from swiping, your choice fatigue might transition into over-confidence. Sure, the guy you got drinks with who bailed on you when the check came wasn’t the one, but your pool is deep. You’ve yet to hit the lottery, and with a dating app, you’ve got to kiss a few frogs before you kiss a prince. 

But this over-confidence isn’t the gift we think it is. Assured of our own qualities and knowing any man would be lucky to make us the mother of his children, we delude ourselves into thinking that just because a solid guy – who wasn’t right for one arbitrary reason or another – wasn’t “the one,” there’s definitely one who is. We just have to keep swiping! 

Dating apps are creating the delusion that women have hundreds of options when, in reality, it isn’t that simple.

Dating Apps Are Imperfect

It seems insane that so many of us have turned to quantitative technology like dating apps when love in many ways isn’t so simple. To some, love or attraction can be explained by hormones and processes in the brain, but applying a computer’s abilities to a feeling should be one of the first concerns we have when using an app for our own ends. Computers are designed to obey commands and spit out information, and using one to meet your soulmate should perhaps be our last choice, not our first.

Dating apps are already an imperfect system, for the sole reason that men and women approach them differently. When you swipe through options, you’re looking for the man you want waiting for you at the end of a long aisle. You might look at his appearance, first and foremost, but base your final decision on his profile bio, his pictures, his humor, his location, his religion, and his career. For men, it’s often as simple as the first picture in your roll of photos. They look at your attractiveness and make their decision to swipe based on your appearance. We can’t blame either sex for wanting what we want or behaving how we do. If we feel uncomfortable by this, it’s because we’re applying the principles of a modern tool to prehistoric biological conditioning.

We also have to consider how dating apps are designed. Though there are tons of options for almost everyone – including Christian apps, ones for single parents, ones where women make the first move – they all essentially function on the same basic operating system. These apps use an algorithm like your social media feeds do to churn out a list of matches for you based on both the data you give it, like your location, race, and career, and the data the app mines from your phone, such as the music you listen to, the ads you click on, and so on and so forth. As you swipe back and forth, the app gets more and more savvy on what you prefer and what you don’t, and suggests users based on what you match with. 

Not only that, but you also have to consider how you match up to the other women you’re competing against on the app within your same age range and location. Using a process called collaborative filtering, you’re suggested to a certain pool of men based on what they swipe on and women who have similar profiles to yours. Tinder, for example, uses what’s known as the Elo score to make matches, giving each user a “desirability rating.” So, if you have a low rating and you match with someone with a higher rating, your rating also increases. Basically, even as you’re voting on all the guys you come across, they’re also voting on you, increasing or decreasing the chances other men will see you in their feed. 

Like most of the technology we have nowadays, this is a pretty ingenious system. It knows nearly everything about you as an adult within mere minutes, and has a collection of potentially compatible mates for you in half the time. But it’s key to remember here that just because we have groundbreaking technology on our phones, our soulmate isn’t guaranteed, and when human error like an inflated ego gets involved, our chances narrow considerably.

With So Many Options, Having Strict Standards Doesn’t Feel Unrealistic

There are over 25 million dating app users, making the industry worth billions of dollars. It’s reasonable to assume that with millions of candidates at your disposal, there’s sure to be one guy in there who meets your standards.

But as choice fatigue and bad pickup lines overwhelm us, those standards might climb higher and higher. Before you downloaded an app, you wanted a guy who made a good living. Now, you’re specifically looking for one who makes above the average income, or even higher. You’re now using what turned you off certain guys as a determining factor in what you think the right man will possess. 

You might turn down those you don’t mesh well with politically, and you definitely want someone who makes around the same income or more, and is within the same religion as you. You want someone who wants kids, someone who’s on good terms with their family, and someone with no known history of disturbing behavior or a criminal record. You want someone who likes pets, who’s taller than you (even when you’re wearing heels), and someone who will agree to spend every Christmas at your mom’s, and who’s not too cheap to go on a cruise every summer. You want someone who’s not going through male pattern baldness before 30, and someone who works out rigorously, and who doesn’t make cruel or vulgar remarks when they drink too much, or spend every weekend with their deadbeat friends. On and on it goes.

One in ten couples in monogamous relationships will meet online, according to Pew Research, so you keep going, swiping like there’s no tomorrow. And thanks to engineered data, it feels like your pool is neverending. But let’s face it – once you’ve made a mental list of every “non-negotiable” and every desired trait, your realistic group of potential mates could be counted on one hand. 

Ditch the Dating App Delusion

We’ve been using dating apps all wrong. The appeal in dating apps for many is the seemingly endless number of possibilities it offers, but when it comes down to it, both scientifically and realistically, we should be doing the opposite.

This is according to Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist with decades of research on love under her belt, who helped refine the algorithm at Knowing what she knows about attraction in addition to dating in the modern age, she has this sage, if unconventional, wisdom to offer: “The human brain is not built to deal with more than about five to nine options. After that, the brain just spaces out. You choose nobody. So the first thing that you’ve got to do is after you’ve met nine people, get off the internet site, and get to know at least one of these people better. The more you get to know somebody, the better you tend to like them. Number one, don’t binge. Number two, think of reasons to say yes instead of no.”

Dr. Fisher also points out that the human brain has a built-in “negativity bias,” in that we’re designed to remember what we don’t like about someone we barely know. In the wild at the beginning of civilization, this probably acted in our best interest to protect us from the unknown or from someone who wasn’t our mate. But you can’t compare that kind of scenario to a dating app.  

Nine people. It’s definitely easy to swipe right and make a potential match with nine people. You could certainly find your soulmate from a group of nine people, or at least one nice guy. And isn’t getting off the app what it’s all about?

Closing Thoughts

You might believe that you have millions of reasons to swipe left or to not go out with a match you aren’t normally attracted to. In reality, there’s a wide pool of women all competing for a very small, specific group of men, leaving behind potentially tons of amazing matches and, what’s more, genuine connections. Every single girl who’s committed to giving dating apps a try should take Dr. Fisher’s advice: Instead of finding reasons to say no – which is admittedly easier, but won’t get you any closer to making a real connection – say yes!

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