Love At First Swipe: How the Science Behind Tinder Has Changed Dating Today

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

Here’s something to think about: If Tinder — the increasingly popular online dating app — had been around in another era, would Romeo have found Juliet, or would she have swiped left? Would Snow White and Prince Charming have been a match given their proximity? Would Elizabeth Bennett have been interested in Mr. Darcy based on his profile pic alone?

Welcome to Tinder, the app that is changing the way people approach online dating. It has become the way to date — casually and otherwise — and it’s now a multinational phenomenon. According to Tinder founder and CEO Sean Rad, the app is responsible for 750 million swipes and 10 million matches made per day, with membership growing by 15 percent each week.

Anyone who has “tindered” before knows that it’s easy to fall into the soothing swiping rhythm, with repetitive swipes left and right, as if it were a game — except that real people are swiping you back. What exactly about this dating app made its popularity skyrocket in such a short time, leaving millions of users hooked?

Unlike mainstream dating sites based on complex compatibility algorithms rooted in a user’s response to countless questions, Tinder connects singles using proximity from your smart phone’s GPS and your age range preference. You don’t need to fill out a long profile. You just need a Facebook account, a few photos, and a thumb ready for swiping. The app syncs with your Facebook page and pulls your profile photo along with other basic data. From there, Tinder shows you photos of potential suitors. One-by-one, you swipe right on someone’s picture to let him know you’re interested or left to never see him again. As of this year, 750 million people have been “swiped.”

Many agree that Tinder is undoubtedly shallow. You judge a potential match primarily on physical appearances. However, the company defensively insists that it mirrors the way things work in real life. Attraction to physical appearance tends to precede everything else. Tinder has taken that and rolled it into a simple platform. Superficial — yes, but could this bare minimum approach be on to something?

The average Tinder user checks the app 11 times per day, seven minutes at a time. It could be the unexpected and pleasantly affirming matches that keep your hopes in overdrive, your brain actively engaged, and your thumb constantly swiping. Or it could be the potential for instant gratification — the same reason people frequent casinos from the hour their doors open. Tinder seems to have an effect on users similar to the effects of winning at gambling. Perhaps it’s not much different than sitting in front of a slot machine, pulling the lever, and being unsure whether the next play will be a win. In the brain, those wins translate into a rush of dopamine, which cause the brain to say, “Hey! Remember what’s happening, because I want more.”

But here’s the thing: Tinder is in the business of connecting potential matches, something that countless websites have tried to do in the past. Not many have caught on with the same speed as Tinder, which begs the question — does it actually work? Can you really know if someone else is really your soulmate based on a few pictures, or because you both share an affinity for the TV series “Doctor Who” Tinder might be new technology, but according to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, it operates on a very primitive process.

You might not know it, but there’s biological instinct going on when the guy checking you out at a party gives off the wrong vibe. We’ve been wired to size up a potential mate instantly — an intuitive skill that was likely developed millions of years ago when it was necessary to differentiate who to protect ourselves from and who would be the right choice to complement our genes. To this day, we regularly make up our minds about whether an individual could be a good match within the first few seconds of seeing him, whether or not we’re always ready to admit it.

A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that the brain determines immediately how trustworthy a face is before a memory of that face is fully registered, suggesting that we make quick judgments about people. In fact, in the first few milliseconds of seeing a new face, we’re evaluating their physical attractiveness. However, the rostromedial prefrontal cortex — a region of the brain that is known to be important in making social decisions — puts the brakes on this initial assessment process, urging us to go a bit deeper in determining compatibility.

Another study at Dartmouth College confirmed a hypothesis that people generally perceive individuals with high inner eyebrows and prominent cheekbones as more trustworthy than those who have lower eyebrows or less pronounced cheekbones. To the brain, the face is essentially a roadmap to discerning one’s personality.

After discovering these results, the same participants were placed inside a brain scanner and shown images of faces, each for a duration of about 30 milliseconds. The researchers then did something called “backward masking,” in which they displayed an image of something irrelevant — what they call a “mask” — immediately after showing the participants a photo of a face. This procedure is a way of tricking the brain, making it incapable of processing the face.

Their findings showed that even though participants were not able to process the faces, their brains still did. The amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for social and emotional behavior, lit up with activity based on judgments about trustworthiness or nontrustworthiness, concluding that our brains evaluate people before we become consciously aware of them. Could this be why Tinder users are able to swipe so quickly through potential matches, knowing in a split-second whether or not the person in the profile is worth getting to know more?

On the romance front, different parts of the prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain responsible for critical thinking and decision-making — have also been discovered to make snap judgments about a person’s physical attraction and whether someone can be, well, the “one.” More specifically, researchers found a link between a region of the medial prefrontal cortex responsible for social decisions, called the paracingulate cortex, and peoples’ choices about romantic partners. This region hummed with increased activity when volunteers saw photographs of the potential matches that they would say “yes” to.

With Tinder’s evolutionary approach to dating, combined with its simplicity and endless supply of singles, it’s no surprise how addictive it has become among users. Swipe, swipe, swipe, match, swipe, match, swipe, swipe. Said one user: “It’s easy to fall into a soothing swiping rhythm. It almost feels like a game. I’ve Tindered in traffic before, while waiting in line at the grocery store, or just while lying in bed. It’s not like it takes much effort or analyzing to decide if you find someone attractive.”

Pop culture expert and author Malcolm Gladwell once wrote: “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” While decisions like swiping left or right seem rushed, they are made in a hurry for a reason — out of a primal instinct that our species has carried through centuries of evolution. It doesn’t matter how quickly the decision has been made, what matters is that there was a reason it was made in the first place. We haven’t rushed to a decision at all — rather, we’ve made up our minds that fast.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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