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Why online dating is both addictive and ineffective!

I know people who have been on dating apps for a decade. And they are not coming off anytime soon, not because they can't find a match but because online dating is designed to keep them swiping.

Modern dating has become predominantly digital. It is therefore not surprising that most singletons have switched bars for profiles in the hope of finding “the one”. The online dating business has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry; and it continues to grow exponentially year on year. But those using online dating services are finding it just as hard, if not harder, to find a soul mate online as they did in real life. But wait. Isn't online dating supposed to more efficient and effective – just like online shopping? With many websites and apps boasting of having millions of users, there must be a perfect match for everyone, right? Well, it may appear that way, in theory, but the reality is not that straight forward. The problem is not necessarily the lack of good matches. It’s in the way our brains function. The way our brain makes decisions and choices. Most of us marvel at the idea of having so much choice! Yet science and psychology has shown that choice does not help decisions. In fact, the more options we have to choose from the more likely we are to not choose. It’s called choice paralysis.

And it is precisely this reason that online dating is ineffective. The bad news is that it will get worse as millions more flock to online dating sites.

The problem of too much choice

The science of human psychology will tell you that having too much choice or options hinders decision-making. In fact, it paralyses our brains to a point where we end up not making a decision at all. To illustrate, let’s look at the jar tasting experiment that was conducted by Sheena Lyengar, a professor at Columbia University. The experiment was simple. Two jam tasting booths were set up at an up-scale grocery store on two separate days. One booth had only 6 varieties of jam whilst the other had 24 varieties. The results were simply remarkable. 60% of customers stopped to taste when presented with 24 varieties compared to only 40% for 6 varieties. But that was not the surprising result. The surprise was the number of customers who chose and bought a jar. Only 3% of customers bought a jar of jam when presented with 24 varieties compared to 30% when there were only 6 varieties. That is a big difference. And to make sure that this was not a fluke, the experiment was repeated many times in different locations and produced similar results. So, what is it about too much choice that paralyses us into indecision and inaction? And what are the implications for online dating?

It is difficult to choose when presented with many options.

Implications of choice paralysis for online dating

The implications of this apparent human weakness are huge when it comes to online dating. Online dating is like buying a product or service. It involves going through a buying-decision process. This buying-decision process is a mentally taxing exercise. It’s even more mentally taxing if that decision is choosing a partner to spend the rest of one’s life with. Just like it is when buying a product, the decision process for choosing a partner is also complex. It requires one to gather and evaluate information about the prospective products, i.e. prospective partners, comparing with alternative products to pick one that tops the others. That means comparing numerous profiles and trying to choose one that is most suited to one according to some expectations that are driven by various hard-to-predict variables. That is a lot of work! To make the task even more complex, the most useful information on dating website profiles is found in the description section. This is usually in the form of free style text where users describe themselves. These descriptions vary wildly depending on a user’s style – making it even harder for the brain to process. Remember, our brain cannot compare oranges with apples. This just adds another layer of complexity to the choosing process. Confronted with such complexity and choice overload we (our brain, rather) tend to go for the simpler alternative – pick none! That is the psychological problem that most of us unknowingly confront when we try online dating.

Many of my friends have been on dating apps for over ten years with very little luck.

Of course, from time to time they do choose, go on a date or two until they discover (in most cases) that the reality is far from the airbrushed profile photos and inflated descriptions on user profiles. In marketing this is what some call buyer’s remorse. Having too much choice exacerbate this buyers’ remorse. If there is more choice, we can’t help but blame ourselves for making a “poor choice” if things don’t work out. And most people find themselves back in the dating pool – having to go over the same complex buying decision again. And the more you repeat the more complex it gets because we’ll be trying to weed out the airbrushed photos and inflated descriptions, to weed out the fakes. This sadly turns into a never-ending cycle of indecision and loneliness.

Other issues affecting online dating

Too much choice is not the only problem with online dating. There two other issues that compound this problem, the window-shopping effect and the ownership problem.

The window-shopping effect

I think most of us can agree that window-shopping can be satisfying but highly addictive. Science and psychology backs this. Window shopping produces a feel-good effect due to the production happiness inducing chemicals like dopamine. It feels great to marvel at rows of beautiful trainers or gorgeous handbags. In the case of online dating, who wouldn’t enjoy browsing through hundreds of gorgeous people? People upload their best pictures on their profiles. After all, there is no harm in browsing and looking, right? Given that the choosing decision process is complicated by choice overload, window-shopping becomes an easier, more satisfying alternative. It’s a quick fix where you can indulge your fantasies without having to make a decision. It becomes increasingly satisfying to just look through endless profiles. It is easy and you don’t have to lift a finger. In fact, research has shown that people begin to unconsciously disfavour the idea of actually going out to meet the real people behind the profile. Meeting people takes effort and courage. It is nerve-wrecking for those who are socially introverted. To meet someone, you have to pick a place to meet, prepare, dress up, and spend money. Compered to effortless scrolling it is not surprising what becomes more appealing and preferable, especially if it brings just as much satisfaction as interacting with potential suitors in the real world.

Window shopping can be addictive

Ownership problem

Most of us have bought a second-hand product at some point in our lives – be it a book at garage sale or a used car. We know too well that in most cases the seller always thinks their product is worth more than the buyer thinks it’s worth. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon. We place more value on things we own than others do. That is because of our emotional attachment and involvement with the thing. Let’s look at the example of selling a car. To you, it’s not simply a car. It’s a vessel of memories – of good and bad times, long road trips with loved ones, lonely night drives, camping – all those memories and experiences translates to value for you. But a potential buyer only sees a used-up piece of metal with an even more used up engine – especially from those long road trips.

The same phenomenon applies to online dating. Most of us think we deserve more than what other people may think we deserve. We all tent to bump up and over-estimate our self-worth and value. This directly affects how we interact with other singletons on dating apps. We unconsciously raise our expectation and the specification of potential partners. From talking to my friends, it appears that they don’t respond to, or are not interested in more than 95% of the people who make the first move to contact them. The explanation is simple. It means the majority of people contacting my friends may have overestimated their self-worth and aimed a little higher. It may also be that my friends overestimated their own self-worth resulting in them concluding that those contacting them are of a ‘lower standard’ than they expect. So, what do my friends do? They contact people who are ‘out of their league’. The result is that they also get very few replies (5%) when they make the first move to contact another user. I’m sure you are starting to see where this is going and how it ends (or not).

Some Potential Solutions

It is obvious that online dating is fraught with complexity and psychological challenges for which we are largely unaware. It is as inefficient and ineffective as any process or system can be. The question is whether anything can be done to make more effective and efficient since most of us solely rely on it to meet new people. Some dating websites and apps claim to use complex algorithms and AI to match users. This is a good start. The algorithms and AI don’t even have to work well. I believe the main function of such algorithms is or can be purely psychological. When users believe they have been matched by a smart, intelligent algorithm it removes the need to gather and analyse information to make the decision themselves. After all, the smart computer would’ve done all the hard work! That can potentially counteract the choice paralysis. Focusing on “matches” that are presented to you reduces your options from hundreds of thousands to probably just tens at a time. This is means less work for the brain, and easier choosing process. No wonder the websites that use these complex algorithms charge users and report higher rates of success. The success in matchmaking may have more to do with psychology than with algorithms.

As users of online dating, we can also do more. We can be realistic with our expectations. Ask yourself if the kind of person you hope/want to meet is the kind of person you’d normally mix and socialise with in real life – or likely to mingle with in similar social circles. The best start is to look at your ex-partner, preferably someone you met in real life. Make a list of all the things that attracted you to them. And those that turned you off, especially those that made you break up with them in the end. Use this criterion to search for a match. Let’s face it, if you were with your ex for a few years means something worked between the two of you. But the fact that you broke up means something didn’t quite work. So, by factoring both the positives and negatives from your previous relationship, you will be able to create a specification for a better version of your ex-partner. That, in my opinion, is a good and realistic place to start! You should also limit online “window-shopping” to those meeting the criteria you’d have set above. This will deter you from aimlessly scrolling and swiping through hundreds of user profiles. Such aimless scrolling and swiping can create a fallacy of abundant choice, which in turn will paralyse you into indecision, inaction and a life of loneliness and endless swiping.


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