‘You can always press delete'
Psychological research on romantic relationships has traditionally focused on areas like attachment, emotions and intimacy. However, in the past few years a new aspect of romantic relationships has emerged, with a surge in the popularity of dating apps.
Increasing numbers of couples now meet, and even marry, after ‘swiping right’ on dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble and Happn. At one time, such apps were viewed with some suspicion and stigma, but such negative responses have largely dissipated. TSB bank found that dating apps now contribute £11.7 billion to the UK economy every year – a reflection of their prevalence in the modern-day dating scene. Dating apps are no longer the exception, they’re the norm.
While dating apps are still relatively new in the grand scheme of things, they are quickly taking centre stage in the formation of romantic relationships, especially among young people. Research is therefore beginning to address the psychological element of dating apps, both in terms of interpersonal relations and individual emotions. Much of the early research has focused on motivations for using dating apps, and particularly on how frequently they are used to bolster self-esteem (Sumter et al., 2017).
But has the spiralling use of dating apps changed the dating landscape and how romantic relationships are formed? In a 2016 article, ‘Liquid love’, Hobbs and colleagues noted the emphasis on ‘strategic performances’ in people’s activity on dating apps, including deliberately constructed self-presentation. While Erving Goffman’s 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life had identified impression management as a common practice in social relations long before the advent of dating apps, there has never been more opportunity to control first impressions than there is today. On Tinder, potential dates must judge whether to swipe left or right based on just a few carefully chosen photographs and a short 500-character biography. Users are able to display a highly filtered version of themselves, if they choose to do so; information can be selective and highly crafted.
In some 2016 qualitative research, Janelle Ward interviewed 21 Tinder users of a range of ages; her findings illustrated that impression management on Tinder emerged from the desire to present an ideal (yet authentic) self in one’s profile. Perpetuating an ideal self, while maintaining the desired authenticity and refraining from outright untruths, is made easier through an online platform. It allows the user to hold back information (at least at first), which would not be possible when meeting face-to-face, and to magnify or emphasise positive features. Monica Whitty interviewed a large pool of 60 internet daters in 2008, and found that half of the interviewees admitted to exaggerating their attractive qualities on their profile, although most said that they refrained from blatant untruths. With apps (as opposed to dating websites), the messaging stage that usually comes prior to meeting also provides an opportunity to cultivate false impressions; messages can be edited until they are ‘perfect’ before pressing send.
Incidentally, this practice of perfect profiling can actually perpetuate low self-esteem. Strübel and Petrie surveyed over 1300 young people, and reported that Tinder users had lower self-esteem and a more negative perception of their body image than non-users. The use of the app was found to facilitate ‘body shame’ and ‘body monitoring’. And this aim for perfection is not only applied to oneself; the vast array of choice of potential partners on dating apps means that an imperfect relationship is increasingly likely to be discarded in pursuit a more ‘perfect’ match. This was termed ‘relationshopping’ in a study conducted by Rebecca Heino and colleagues, who found the ‘marketplace’ to be a salient metaphor in their in-depth interviews with 34 respondents.
While to some extent dating might always have been described in a crude sense as a ‘marketplace’, research has found that values that have traditionally been emphasised as important in mate selection include good company, honesty, consideration and affection (Buss & Barnes, 1986). However, the sudden accessibility of hundreds of potential Tinder dates involves selection based solely on pictures and a very short bio; this inevitably increases the emphasis on looks when selecting people to chat to on apps like Tinder. This could decrease the chance of these relationships being satisfying in the long run, since substantial research has found that intrinsic dimensions (such as warmth and kindness) are a stronger predictor of well-functioning relationships than extrinsic dimensions like attractiveness and wealth (Rodriguez et al., 2015). This means that selecting a date on Tinder could skew our initial ‘selection criteria’ towards things that are less likely to bring us long-term happiness.
Eli Finkel and colleagues, in a very extensive review of research in 2012, also noted that the ‘shopping mentality’ could lead people to discard imperfect but satisfying relationships in favour of the search for a ‘soulmate’. Discarding imperfect relationships has long been identified as more common in those who hold ‘destiny beliefs’ – the idea that two partners are either meant for one another or not (Knee, 1998). However, Finkel’s group have argued that dating apps (and their frequent ‘soulmate’-related claims) have exacerbated the trend for soulmate or destiny beliefs, which (given that most relationships undergo stresses at some point) are likely to undermine wellbeing in relationships in the long-term. Their analysis cites a poll from January 2011 indicating that 73 per cent of Americans believed in soulmates at the time of the survey, which showed an increase of 7 per cent since just six months earlier. Dating apps can discourage the belief in ‘romantic growth’ (Knee, 1998) – in other words, the belief that relationships need work and persistence to succeed and get through problems and relationship stressors.
Ghosting and game-playing
It appears, then, that dating apps have changed people’s attitudes towards how best to attain (and maintain) a fulfilling and successful relationship – and arguably have actually decreased the likelihood of achieving this.
Interaction through the barrier of a screen can also change the way we treat one another throughout the dating process itself. One reason for this is that the online medium can create a sense of depersonalisation, with the person on the other side of the messages being seen as anonymous (and therefore more easily dispensable). In his book Liquid Love, Zygmunt Bauman argued that relationship security had been dissolved by the medium of online dating, even before the advent of Tinder: one of his participants openly claimed that the benefit of internet dating is that ‘you can always press delete’.
Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance focuses on the changing face of romance more specifically in response to modernity, mobile phones and dating apps. For this book he conducted a mass survey of 150,000 people, which revealed that it is common practice to ‘ghost’ people – in other words, to end a relationship by ceasing all communication with that person and ignoring their attempts to get in touch. The survey showed ghosting to be the respondents’ second most popular means of letting a potential partner know they’re not interested. Using an app can further encourage this behaviour by removing any potential embarrassment that might otherwise result from cutting off contact – Ansari emphasises that before technology became involved, people were more likely to meet and date somebody who lived in close proximity. This would have resulted in some awkward encounters if one party had decided to simply stop speaking to the other. Dating apps, however, open up a far wider pool of people, most of whom we are never likely to see again should we choose to ghost them. This means budding relationships are now less likely to be secure.
The safety barrier of the screen can also lend itself to other forms of ‘game-playing’. Research by LendEdu showed that 44 per cent of Tinder users only use the app to boost self-esteem or to procrastinate, with no intention of meeting up with the person they are messaging. Tyson and colleagues conducted a survey last year of 131 people (90 men and 40 women) and found that a third of men said that they ‘casually like most profiles’ without necessarily even being interested – in the same survey, not even one woman claimed to do the same. While this study could be made more robust with a more even split between women and men, the results have nonetheless caused outcry in the media, and men’s ‘swiping activity’ has been interpreted by many as a simple game to see who will ‘like’ them back. Until 2016 Tinder screens even offered users the option to ‘Keep playing’ as opposed to sending a message to a potential match. The wording was changed last year from ‘Keep playing’ to ‘Keep swiping’, speculated to be a deliberate shift away from the negative reputation associated with being a platform for game-playing.
It seems clear that dating apps have brought about significant changes to the practices involved in instigating and forming romantic relationships – but what is the impact of these shifts? To date, relatively few studies have examined the lived experience and personal psychological effects of dating app use. Since dating apps also remain a relatively new phenomenon, the long-term effects of the dating app culture on mental health (or on interpersonal relationships) cannot yet be known, either at a cultural or an individual level.
However, the existing research could already be a cause for concern. Firstly, the research that discusses dating apps as a move towards ‘destiny beliefs’ suggests that dating apps encourage people to be less willing to work through any relationship problems, and therefore put relationships at higher risk of being abandoned as soon as they hit a snag. The increase ease of abandoning relationships through ‘ghosting’ also creates a more unstable environment for budding relationships. So far, then, dating apps have certainly changed the face of romantic relationships and dating, exposing users to a wider pool of people but also producing more uncertainty and insecurity within these relationships, as well as encouraging (and enabling) worse treatment of potential dates. Do the potential positives of dating apps outweigh these risks? In the long-term, arguably not.
These changes are likely to produce a knock-on impact on mental health. The decreased stability in relationships, the negative treatment between potential daters, and the increased pressure on looks are all concerning given the already acknowledged trend towards increased depression and anxiety in millennials: a study by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggested that 12 per cent of millennials have been diagnosed with a clinical anxiety disorder, and a BDA white paper found that as many as 30 per cent of working millennials experience general anxiety, although not necessarily with a diagnosis. The latter figure rises to 61 per cent among American university students, according to a 2014 study by the American College Health Association. These figures are indicative of the mental impact of increasing pressures on millennials, which come with an uncertain political landscape, a competitive job market, and now the greater instability and pressure involved in the formation of romantic relationships. Especially given these statistics, which demonstrate the emotional vulnerability of millennials compared to previous generations, further psychological research (both qualitative and quantitative) will become crucial in the future, to educate us further on the long-term psychological impact of placing dating apps at the centre of our romantic lives.
‘My interest in the psychological impact of dating apps was sparked by seeing substantial changes in how people my age were approaching dating. While dating apps and online dating used to be talked about with disdain, their reception dramatically changed as the stigma was dropped and their popularity accelerated at an astonishing rate. Romantic relationships can have a dramatic impact on our emotional state, and psychological research has understandably paid much attention to traditional aspects of relationship formation. However, dating apps are effecting substantial changes in many people’s experiences of dating. As they become more and more prevalent, it becomes all the more important to understand how these changes can impact on us mentally – for better or worse.’
- Hannah Potts has just completed a conversion course in Psychological Sciences at Brunel University
See also a Valentines-themed trawl of our archive, including the first episode of the Research Digest podcast.
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