In this episode of Mating Matters Podcast, Dr. Wendy Walsh talks to a neuroscientist who explains how dating apps can affect the brain. They can create both cognitive overload and a kind of paradox of choice — that is, the more choices people have, the less likely they are to make a choice and stick with it. She also talks to real people about the good, bad and boring ways that dating websites and apps impact us. One woman met her husband, one man got addicted, and a young women says she suffers from “Dating App-athy.”
READ THE FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Romance, dating, falling in love. Choosing a romantic partner to share your dinner table, your bed or your entire life is frankly the most important decision a human can ever make.
This is Dr. Wendy Walsh. Welcome to Mating Matters. It’s why we do what we do. In this episode – Dating Apathy. Are dating apps changing the way we relate? This is important because making the wrong decision can be downright dangerous.
Sorry to break it to you, but poor romantic decisions can lead to poverty, physical injury, or even death. And the greater risk lies with women. Did you know that half of murdered women are killed by their intimate partner? Everyday in America, three women are killed by their lover. Yikes!
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen to the vast majority of lovers. But finding a safe, reliable, romantic partner who will keep you out of poverty, stimulate you emotionally and intellectually, and also be physically attractive, well, that’s a tall order. Long before there was the internet and smartphone dating apps, lovers mostly met through a personal introduction or a chance meeting.
In the movie, “Isn’t It Romantic”, Rebel Wilson and Liam Hemsworth’s characters have a chance encounter of their own.
[Movie Clip Playing 00:01:34 to 00:01:39]
But then along came a much more efficient way to meet people – media. First, in the 1980s, it was print media. People took out small personal ads in the back of newspapers and magazines. Remember the Pina Colada song by Rupert Holmes?
[Rupert Holmes’ Song Playing 00:01:53 to 00:2:05]
Yeah, those two philandering lovers found each other again through a personal ad. After personal ads, the Internet came along. In the 1990s movie, “You’ve Got Mail”, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks launched a silver screen email romance that echoed what so many people were experiencing in the 1990s as their courtship began to grow through technology.
[Movie Clip Playing 00:02:27 to 00:02: 42]
Move over AOL, dating then got fast, real fast. From dating websites to dating apps. From swishes to pings, likes, matches, messaging and yes, ghosting. Millions of people all over the world, dove into online dating. I want you to know that there’s plenty of good about online dating, and there’s a bit of bad too if you don’t know what you’re doing.
First of all, dating apps make it easier to find that special someone. That unicorn, so to speak. But the technology itself is not only changing the way we relate, it could actually be changing our brains. But no matter what your fancy, there is a never ending array of dating websites and apps that appeal to every niche market. From religious people to the polyamorous. From farmers to gay people.
Speaker 2: I’ve been on and off using a variety of …
Speaker 3: Zoosk, am I pronouncing that right? Zoosk? Christian Mingle?
Speaker 2: … so, when I was in college, is when I started using them. It started off with Tinder.
Speaker 3: So, I’ve used Tinder, I’ve used Bumble. Those are the two that I’ve used the most. I used OKCupid back in the day and PlentyOfFish as well.
Speaker 2: I guess, so Bumble where you can-
Speaker 4: I’ve used Tinder, I’ve used Grindr, I’ve used another app called Chappy, which is where you can meet other gay men. And then online, I’ve used Match.
Speaker 2: … so, I like that for a while. And now, I’m on a dating app called Hinge recently, most recently. Not sure if it’s for me. I think I’m kind of a little bit over dating apps at this point.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Let’s start with the good news. People are indeed meeting and marrying through online connections.
Speaker 5: So, when I went on Match and I was on Match actually for about 10 days.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: That’s a woman in her 40s with an 11-year-old daughter. She told me she’d just come out of an 18-month relationship. That one had begun as an introduction through friends but had gone sour. So, she decided to try online dating. Yes, she met the perfect guy after only 10 days. Her criteria though was strict. Her perspective mate had to be a Christian, live nearby, and seem like the kind of guy who could be a good stepfather and mix well with her family. To determine that, she brought her mother and daughter to first dates.
Speaker 5: Because we’re the package. So, I’m not gonna waste my time. If you can’t take us, forget it. So, I wanted him to know what he’s getting into and my mom brought her boyfriend, who happened to know the person I was meeting. And it worked out great. And 45 days later, we actually got engaged. The wedding will be six and a half months away.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Wow! She’s not alone. A 2013 study from researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, found that one third of American marriages now begin as online meetings. And that marriages that began online were slightly less likely to result in a marital breakup. And they were associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction. Of course, I should add this is a self-report Internet study. While the large number of participants, nearly 20,000 is quite impressive, questions remain about how honestly people answer self-report studies, or whether the personality types of people who prefer online dating factor in. Either way, this is promising research.
The other positive news about online dating, is that it’s really good for subgroups who may have a very small likeminded dating pool in their own communities, ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, gender variances, and sexual orientation differences. In fact, dating apps began with a single app called Grindr.
Grindr was designed to help gay men find friends wherever they went. For most gay people, online dating is far more positive than negative.
Speaker 4: I think mostly positive because it’s, you know, for me, I don’t want to meet people in bars, you know. And it’s particularly, you know, it’s harder in the gay world because you have a safe place to meet people, right? And those environments provide an easy place and it’s an easy way to manage introductions.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: So, that’s the good news. People are actually meeting, mating and committing through online meetings. And online dating is particularly helpful for subgroups because of people who don’t have much dating opportunity, either because they live in small communities or because they’re a minority.
Online dating also saves a whole lot of time. You don’t have to get dressed up. You don’t need to spend money and time in bars and nightclubs, and you can vet people before you waste time on a date. You can do a Google search or even a full background check. In some ways, this makes online dating safer than meeting a random stranger in a dark club.
Now, here’s the bad news, just like a nightclub, dating apps are filled with people looking for long-term relationships, short-term relationships, affairs and polyamorous group fun, and they’re all lumped together. So, it’s kind of “buyer beware”. Asking people what they’re looking for and advertising exactly what you’d like to find is crucial. Though people still like to lie. Oh, and speaking of lying, online dating sadly also hosts a lot of scammers.
Scammers fall into one of two categories. In category one are lonely people, unhappy with their own lives who pretend to be the person they wish they were. And to conceal their fraud, they’re very skilled at providing excuses as to why they can’t meet up in the real world. These are called “catfishes” and there’s a whole documentary and MTV series that shows some pretty shocking reveals. It’s called “Catfish”.
Speaker 6: A young guy named Dylan contacted me and Max after receiving an anonymous tip claiming his online love, Allie was actually an imposter.
Dylan: I’m just like dumbfounded, whoa. I don’t even know how they got my number.
Max: Once we started digging, we soon discovered that whoever Dylan was talking to, had actually people catfish before.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Then, there are the criminal romance scammers. These people are often part of syndicates in countries like Nigeria and Ghana. They prey on lonely people around the world by getting them to fall in love with them online, and eventually, they ask for money.
Speaker 9: I talked to him a few times. I mean, we messaged everyday.
Speaker 10: Johnson says she and Cole engaged in a two-year online relationship, but never met in person. Over the course of their relationship, Johnson says she gave Cole more than a million dollars in increments.
Speaker 9: At this point, your heart rules your head, and I was doing what my heart wanted me to do.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: In the most egregious cases, romance scammers practice extortion. They record people’s most intimate conversations or even videotape Skype sex and threaten to post it online if the victim doesn’t pay the money.
TV Anchor: Tonight, a heartbreaking family tragedy. A father from Yonkers is dead and his family believes it’s all because he was sucked into an international romance and money scheme, causing him to lose everything and even steal from relatives.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: That’s the tricky thing about love. It’s like a drug and can make our brains do just about anything to keep it. Now, for most people online dating when used safely, that is with Google searches, real world meetings and the latest invention – use of social media that shows how many friends you actually have in common, all that is a positive experience.
But there’s one other shortcoming to online dating apps. They can become addictive. Justin Garcia is the research director at the Kinsey Institute and Scientific Advisor for match.com.
Justin Garcia: One of the issue seems to be that it’s been what we say is gamified. And that the apps, they feel like a game, and you can swipe through dozens or hundreds of pictures in a few minutes. And that changes the way we’re interacting with potential partners or people that we’re assessing.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Many people like this 40-year-old single father fall prey to the lure of a perfect happy ending.
Speaker 13: Everyone wants to be wanted and I want people to be wanted. I love the romantic endings. I believe in happy endings, and I might go to my grave with that philosophy. And I think that that’s what the dating sites propose, is that happy ending.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: For this man, scammers weren’t the problem. It was the addictive quality of dating apps that keeps one glued to the app rather than dating in the real world. It’s caused by a delicious rush of the neural hormone dopamine. Every time there’s a match or a new message, promising romantic opportunity, your brain gets a tiny hit. Since dating apps reward the brain at random intervals with varying sizes of rewards, a message from a particularly attractive person might bring more dopamine than an average looking person. The apps act exactly like a slot machine, trapping the brain in addictive systems of rewards.
Just like gambling, dating apps work using classical conditioning. Remember Pavlov and his dog, except the stimulus isn’t a bell and the reward isn’t a food treat. The stimulus with a dating app is a swipe and the reward is a match. Here’s Justin Garcia, again.
Justin Garcia: It turns out that in those studies, what works best is every so often when you ring that bell, you don’t give a treat to the animal in the test condition; a dog, a rat, a fish. Now, for the dating apps, there’s something similar that’s happening that you get this sort of periodic reward that keeps you hooked. Exactly like you said, it’s like gambling. And that’s a mix of things. Part of that can be the algorithms depending on the company and the app and the site. And part of it, is just sort of random choice, that you’re going through so many dozens or hundreds of options. You’ll occasionally find one that you like and occasionally, will find one that messages you or likes you or you both swipe right.
Speaker 13: I don’t know, it reminds me of a Las Vegas Casino. There’s no clocks, there’s so much diversion. The further you get into the casino, the harder it is to come on out.
Speaker 3: You probably get a bit of a high from it knowing it’s a way of seeking validation from other people. You know, “How many times did I swipe right today? How many responses and reciprocation of that did I receive?” If I swiped right, you know, 25 times. I got 13 people that swiped right too. I was like, “Oh man, I’m feeling pretty good about myself.”
Speaker 13: And at the beginning, it was super fun, just like any normal addiction, I think. And then eventually, it kind of just took over. And so, I would spend time looking at these sites while I was in traffic and there would be just a wash of – I would say, a wash of energy if anybody ever responded. It was fun, it felt good to be acknowledged. But slowly but surely, it felt like it was taking my self-esteem apart.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Besides being addictive, dating apps can also create something psychologists call a “paradox of choice”. The more choices a human being is presented with, the less likely they are to make a choice, and the less happy they feel with the choices they make.
Justin Garcia: There’s a sense that there is an unlimited number of options. You can go on an app and swipe for an hour especially if it’s somewhere like LA or New York or Miami, with a population density. You could swipe for hours and hours and hours. And that changes the way that we interact with the app. In part, because it changes the way we think about the people on the other side of that app. We think, “Well, if they’re not perfect, there’s another one and there’s another one and there’s another one.” And we often end up chasing these, what Rob Sternberg calls our love stories, right? We’re chasing these ideal notions of, “Well, my partner has to be exactly like this.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And this makes us less happy with our choice.
Justin Garcia: Some scientists think it’s because we sometimes always have a foot out the door. We always think, “Well, if this isn’t great, there’s another thousand.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Besides being tricked by a paradox of choice, dating apps also create a similar phenomenon that Garcia calls “cognitive overload”.
Justin Garcia: We have a hard time deciding particularly when to say yes. And in part, that’s when we’ve got such a large menu or so many options. We have a really difficult time making a decision.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Remember the young woman who’s been using dating apps since she was in college? She’s definitely beginning to suffer from what I call “dating apathy”.
Speaker 2: I mean, even when I’m looking for a movie to watch on Netflix, I get stressed out because I’m like, “Oh God, there’s so many choices. I don’t want to watch anything anymore. I’m done. I’m done.” And then I’m like, I throw down the remote and I’m like, “Let me go do something else.” But I mean, if I was going to blockbuster and I’m like, “Okay, I have to rent one movie, I see all the movies right here in my face, I know where the new selections are, I know where the old movies are,” like, it’s easy. I can go in, I get it, and I’m dedicated to it because I worked a little bit for that movie.
If I’m on an app, I’m just swiping and I’m just like, “It doesn’t matter. So many choices. It doesn’t matter.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Even if you do get a match, next begins a texting marathon.
Speaker 4: When people send me those endless texts, what I typically do, at some point, you just have to cut it off, right? Because it doesn’t go anywhere and it’s a waste of time that you could spend elsewhere.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Here’s the man who told us he was once addicted to dating apps.
Speaker 13: Online sites are time bandits. So, once the conversation starts going, I would lose out on my own family time. You know, my own people’s time. My own tribe would lose out time with me even if I was in the room. Even if we were at dinner, I wasn’t. I was on – I’m looking at the site.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Eventually, this man stopped using all dating apps. He even closed most of his social media accounts.
Speaker 13: I had to come to a moment of self-realization. So, now, I’ve completely taken down my Instagram. I’m in the midst of taking down my Facebook just for business purposes. I don’t want to live digitally at all now. And it’s a wonderful feeling.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And if scammers, addiction and paradox of choice aren’t enough, many first time online daters become rattled by a new dating social trend called “ghosting”.
Speaker 2: Ghosting is the worst. It is the worst. It’s when you really like somebody and then they just all of a sudden just fall off the face of the earth. It’s like, “What happened to you?” I know one guy, I met him on an app. We really had a connection. We’d facetime, we’d Snapchat, we’d text. We did not meet yet though. So, we were about to meet and I don’t know what happened to him. He just left.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Even though she’s young and accustomed to dating app etiquette, she says she’ll never get used to being ghosted.
Speaker 2: I mean, it feels like you’ve been rejected, you know, and especially after like putting your effort into somebody. It’s like a slam in the face. Like you’re just like, “What in the world is happening?” And they’ll block your phone number, your Instagram, your Facebook. You will not be able to tell anything about what they’re doing and that’s the worst feeling, because you don’t have answers. And when you don’t have answers, your mind wanders and you’re just thinking like, “Is it me? Am I ugly? Am I annoying? Am I just a terrible person?”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: I know a few things about love. There are plenty of hormones and neurotransmitters involved in the process of love. The early lustful phase is dominated by testosterone and estrogen. But secure attachment is a calmer, cozier drug, ruled by vasopressin and oxytocin.
So, thinking about dating apps, I came up with this theory. I mean, everybody knows that the most unstable stages of love are at the very beginning and the end, and that’s when we crave dopamine and norepinephrine to cope with those feelings of uncertainty. “Does he like me? Are we a couple? Are we breaking up? What’s happening?”
The middle stage is when we securely settle down into companion at love and experience attachment with those yummy bursts of oxytocin and vasopressin. My hypothesis is that dating apps trap people in the beginnings and endings of relationships with sporadic bursts of dopamine, not unlike that slot machine in Vegas. Dating apps train humans to become addicted to new partners as a kind of dopamine addiction. But many never get the payoff of feelings of security that come with oxytocin and vasopressin.
There are many people who get blasts of dopamine through endless online interactions. Likes, matches and messages with people they’ve never met in the real world. Then, they satisfy their cravings for surges in testosterone and estrogen and other hormones through online pornography, hacking their biochemistry with technology.
I pose my theory to the Kinsey Institute’s, Dr. Justin Garcia. That using the app alone and then also the kind of texting relationships, multiple texting relationships that come out of these apps. For many people, that’s enough. It starts to create enough dopamine that they literally don’t need to date.
Justin Garcia: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. I think that’s a piece that no one’s talking about. That there is a number of people that are swiping all day and talking to a bunch of people. They’re sort of getting satiated. They’re sort of getting the, whether it’s the intimate and sexual communication or just the social connections. I think that we’re starting to see a little bit of evidence and you’re ahead of the curve. We don’t have the data yet to say it, but I think you’re right. That’s what everything is starting to indicate.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And there’s something else I think technology is doing to us. I think dating apps can actually change our brains, impacting our reward centers and rewiring how we perceive the world and love. For some, this is the new normal.
Justin Garcia: It’s a bizarre form of biohacking really. That you can get these different types of social connections and intimate interactions and kind of feel okay. It’s not necessarily fulfilling and maybe what many people want in the long-term, but they can kind of ride it out.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: So, why is it that some people don’t fall victim to this paradox of choice, this addictive quality, this biohack? Maybe it’s how they use the app to avoid the neuro traps. Remember the gay man we spoke with earlier? He says he has great success with the apps and has formed many long term relationships and close friendships.
Speaker 4: Usually, my objective is when I hear from someone, as quickly as possible, meet them in person because that’s when you know, right? You have to see them in person, so that I don’t really get off on the endless sort of back and forth conversation. I want to, as soon as I sort of vet them and make sure they’re not a serial killer, I want to meet them in person.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And remember the woman who brought her mother and daughter to first dates and met her fiancé after just 10 days online? Here’s her advice to others.
Speaker 5: A lot of it is luck. A lot of it is, I truly believe a numbers game. But if everyone has the attitude, you’re responsible for your own happiness, there are a lot of people out there who want a relationship. And it’s just, you know, trying to weed out the people that you think may not fit and just go for it and just be safe and meet in a public place and tell your friends where you’re at. Actually, I had two online dates before I met my fiancé, and I was there for 15 minutes. And again, my mom and daughter showed up at the restaurant.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: I would add to her advice, get on the phone quickly, within a few days. If you like what you hear, meet for a casual coffee soon after. If that goes well, then go off the app and stop and focus, and ask your date to do the same.
Speaker 5: You know, you have to go through and sift through what you’re looking for. But you have to be honest with who you are and what you want, and hopefully find that same person that is on your wavelength.
Speaker 3: It’s not that you have to commit and get married and be exclusive right away. But if you want to date, you’ve got to psychologically get yourself in the mode to do it. And there’s a whole psychology and neurobiology of that focused attention and thinking about that person and not being distracted.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And if you do feel you’re becoming addicted to the apps, shut them off for a few months. Take a break. That’s what the young man who believes he had become addicted did.
Speaker 13: Man, the natural version of meeting someone is just so much better. It takes a lot more work, but it’s why it gives it a priceless feeling. Whereas, I just felt dollar store with the online dating sites.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And here’s the best news of all about online dating. Not only do one third of American marriages begin online, but research shows that couples who reported that they’d met online also reported greater marital satisfaction. Maybe those who have good relationship skills will always find a good mate no matter where they swipe.
Speaker 5: My whole life, I’ve been looking for this ideal person, and I was always trying to put a round peg in a square hole trying to make it work, and I kind of gave up. And then I met him and that’s why we’re engaged so quickly, is because when you spend your whole life looking for this type of person you have in your mind and you know how you want to be loved, and you finally find that, you’re not going to waste time and say there’s someone else out there because you know you found it.
Speaker 3: You just put your best self out there, put yourself in the best profile, put yourself looking as nice as you possibly can, have a smile on your face, have a positive message and then see where it goes from there. I have always gotten a pretty solid response from that.
Speaker 5: And I called that other person up and said, “I think I found the love of my life.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Thank you for listening to Mating Matters. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh with my producer Brooke Peterson. In our next episode, what is love for real? The bio, psycho, social aspects of love.