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The Psychology of Dating Apps

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

One of my favorite courses of my undergrad program as a Psychology student was Research Methods. Once I could get past all of the mind-numbing and tedious statistics (cuz therapists love math!), I became fascinated with the conduction of experiments regarding human behavior.

During this course, we were instructed to conduct our own experiment to test what is known as the “Beautiful-is-Good” effect. This theory states that those who are perceived as physically attractive are also perceived to be more intelligent and have better personalities compared to their less physically attractive counterparts.

We were broken up into four groups and each group was instructed to test the theory by using different methods. I’m sure you would not be surprised to learn that the results for all four groups supported this theory regardless of the method used and results were overwhelmingly in favor of the theory holding true!

This got me thinking…what is the psychology behind dating apps?

First, let’s start with exploring:

Why are we attracted to those whom we are attracted?

According to Lemay, Clark, and Greenberg, the perception that inward qualities are attributed to outward qualities is a means of projecting our own interpersonal goals. In other words, we desire to form close social bonds with those whom we perceive to be physically attractive as a means of pursuing our own goals of aspiring to be better or equally valued people to that of our partner.

If we pursue partners whom we deem equally attractive to ourselves, we naturally feel more comfortable and consider that mate to be well-suited for us. If we pursue partners whom we deem to exceed our own attractiveness, this is either due to a misperception of our own attractiveness, in comparison to how others rate our attractiveness, or it is to aspire to increase our worth and value to match that of the attractive partner.

Beautiful-is-Good applied to dating apps: why Tinder nails it!

Dating apps such as Tinder,, and eHarmony all propose to help you get paired with a mate with whom you consider to be a match. Regardless of the different methods used to help you achieve this goal, the success rate of a match actually panning out tends to be quite low.

But why? Why haven’t the super-smart science-y genius developers of these apps figured out an algorithm that actually works?

If I’m actually paying for the app, shouldn’t the algorithm help me even more?

The truth is that while these algorithms can help connect you with your best potential matches, how you decide whether or not they are actually a match is entirely up to evolutionary psychology, a sect of psychology dedicated to understanding human behavior based on human nature.

According to one study, psychologists surveyed over 3,000 singletons using state-of-the-art psychological tests and created 500 couples based on psychological compatibility… but ignored looks and race. When the couples finally met – even though they trusted the science of the matching process – they were 90% focused on looks and only decided to date a second time if they were deemed equally attractive or worthy of each other’s looks.

Additional studies show that it only takes a matter of 3 seconds for our brains to decide whether or not we find someone attractive!

An app like Tinder is wildly successful largely due to the fact that the creators not only understand this psychology but have also made it free, making it widely accessible. Further, each time you get a match, it’s like receiving a small shot of dopamine right to the brain; thus, drawing you back to it time and time again.

Tinder is also using the concept of unpredictable rewards in that the user doesn’t know while he/she is swiping if he/she will be matched with an individual whom they deem as attractive. This is similar to using a slot machine in which the player does not know, while pulling the lever, if he/she will hit a jackpot. They play knowing that eventually, but not exactly when, someone who pulls the lever will win.

This is the very basis of addictive behavior.

While fancy algorithms are great when it comes to matching things like personality attributes, income level, and likes and interests, it’s not very likely that you’re going to want to go hiking or grab a beer at a local brewery with someone to whom you’re not physically attracted!

And the best part? Science backs you up!

It is within our nature to seek mates who we deem as physically attractive

From an evolutionary perspective, when it comes to choosing a mate, there are several subconscious, involuntary mechanisms at play that determine who you pick.

The chief driving force behind this decision is based on “choosing” a mate with whom it is in our best interest to procreate (whether this is your goal or not, we are still genetically coded this way). Those who are perceived to be attractive oftentimes have symmetrical features and appear to be free of genetic disease; thus, making them an optimal mate with whom to procreate.

As previously mentioned, most often we seek mates who are equal or similar to our own perceived level of attractiveness; thus, why there is always someone for everybody.

Looks are not everything

While it is in our nature to follow our instincts as it pertains to attractiveness, other higher level criteria is important when it comes to choosing a long-term mate because humans are complex animals. Anyone who has dated (or even married) someone simply because they were “hot” knows this does not a solid relationship make!

Having similar morals, values, common interests, and commitment to stick it out when things get difficult reach far beyond physical attractiveness. This has become increasingly more difficult as technology plays on the vulnerabilities of our neurobiology resulting in an immediate gratification society that gives up at the first sign of discomfort.

If you are looking for more than just a hook up, practice being fully in the moment

Put your phone down and talk to the person you’re in interested in face-to-face. Yes, I know it’s anxiety-inducing to actually have to practice social skills but humans are wired to connect and if we don’t, we wind up feeling more isolated, lonely, and depressed.

In today’s “hook up” culture, this may feel like going against the grain but if you’re looking for a lasting relationship, it will take getting out of your comfort zone and yes, being vulnerable.

If you are having trouble being vulnerable or you’re already feeling isolated and depressed, maybe it’s time to talk to a therapist. Contact Blue Sage Counseling and Wellness now to help you start breaking broken patterns and start living the life you deserve!

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