Why Online Dating is Heaven—and Hell
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If you are single today and looking for a partner, you may consider yourself lucky. Before online dating emerged on the internet, dating was usually restricted to the other single people you might meet at work, in school, or in the local pub. But online dating has made it possible to date virtually anyone in the world—from the comfort of your own living room.
Having many options to choose from is appealing to anyone who is searching for something, and even more so if you are trying to find something—or someone—special. Not surprisingly, online dating platforms are exceptionally popular. One out of three adults in the U.S. has used an online dating site or app, and more people are finding their partners online than through any of the ‘traditional’ pathways to love such as meeting people through friends or at work or school.
So, online dating clearly works. However, if it is so easy to find love on dating sites and apps, why are there more single people in the Western world today than ever before? And why do users of the dating platforms often report feelings of ‘Tinder fatigue’ and ‘dating burnout’?
The explanation may be found in the complicated relationship that people have with choice. On the one hand, people like having many choices because having more options to choose from increases the chance of finding exactly what you are looking for. On the other hand, economists have found that having many options comes with some major drawbacks: when people have many options to choose from, they often start delaying their decisions and become increasingly dissatisfied with the selection of options that are available.
In our research, we set out to discover whether this paradox of choice—liking to have many options but then being overwhelmed when we do—may explain the problems people experience with online dating. We created a dating platform that resembled the dating app ‘Tinder’ to see how people’s partner choices unfold once they enter an online dating environment.
In our first study, we presented research participants (who were all single and looking for a partner) with pictures of hypothetical dating partners. For every picture, they could decide to ‘accept’ (meaning that they would be interested in dating this person) or ‘reject’ (meaning that they were not interested in dating this person). Our results showed that participants became increasingly selective over time as they worked through the photos. They were most likely to accept the first partner option they saw and became more and more likely to reject with every additional option that came after the first one.
In our second study, we showed people pictures of potential partners who were real and available. We invited single people to send us a picture of themselves, which we then programmed into our online dating task. Again, we found that participants became increasingly likely to reject partner options as they looked at more and more pictures. Moreover, for women, this tendency to reject potential partners also translated into a lower likelihood of finding a match.
These two studies confirmed our expectation that online dating sets off a rejection mindset: people become more likely to reject partner options when they have more options. But why does this happen? In our final study, we examined the psychological mechanisms that are responsible for the rejection mindset.
We found that people started to experience a decrease in satisfaction with their dating options as they saw more possible partners, and they also became less and less confident in their own likelihood of dating success. These two processes explained why people started to reject more of the options as they looked at more and more pictures. The more pictures they saw, the more dissatisfied and discouraged they became.
Together, our studies help to explain the paradox of modern dating: the endless pool of partner options on the dating apps draws people in, yet the overwhelming number of choices makes them increasingly dissatisfied and pessimistic and, therefore, less likely to actually find a partner.
So what should we do—delete the apps and go back to the local bar? Not necessarily. One recommendation is for people who use these sites to restrict their searches to a manageable number. In an average Tinder session, the typical user goes through 140 partner options! Just imagine being in a bar with 140 possible partners, having them line up, learning a little about them, and then pushing them left or right depending on their suitability. Madness, right? It seems like human beings are not evolutionary prepared to handle that many choices.
So, if you are one of those frustrated and fatigued people who use dating apps, try a different approach. Force yourself to look at a maximum of five profiles and then close the app. When you are going through the profiles, be aware that you are most likely to be attracted to the first profile you see. For every profile that comes after the first one, try to approach it with a ‘beginner’s mind’—without expectations and preconceptions, and filled with curiosity. By shielding yourself from choice overload, you may finally find what you have been looking for.
For Further Reading
Pronk, T. M., & Denissen, J. J. (2020). A rejection mind-set: Choice overload in online dating. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3), 388–396. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 1948550619866189
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. Retrieved from http://works.swarthmore.edu/fac-psychology/198
Tila Pronk is Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at Tilburg University (The Netherlands), relationship therapist, and expert on relationships for television shows. The research described here was conducted in collaboration with Jaap Denissen.