Dating apps are ushering in a new, dystopian romantic landscape. This article describes how your swipe history influences your brain, your behavior, and how we interact with others.
As forests burn, glaciers melt, and the earth slowly churns its way towards oblivion, we are experiencing another abnormal event, this one taking place in the sphere of romantic relationships. The rising popularity of dating apps has collided with ‘Hookup Culture’ and has acted like a wayward meteor and has made the now prehistoric rituals of courtship extinct. I call this ‘The Dating Apocalypse”.
Gone are the days when people meet their partners through proximity or friends and family. Now, a “rendezvous” is just a left swipe away. Even the long, earnest emails exchanged between the main characters in the ’90s movie 'You’ve Got Mail' seems medieval compared to the dating scene today. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ E-courtship seems unfathomable in today’s climate which offers no degree of internet anonymity.
Nowadays, all you have to do is upload a couple of well-lit photos to the app of your choosing and swipe left or right based on your preferences. Dating apps might not get you a date, but they will get your data. These apps primarily function on the collection and monetization of data. They gather basic information on user preferences like age, gender, and location in the beginning. But, as time passes, the app can accumulate specific romantic preferences about the user based on swiping patterns and in-app chat history. The real motivation for dating apps is not to find you a “long-term match” but to get you obsessed with the “swipe’’. These apps have gamified love and have made their currency on getting users addicted to the chase.
The pandemic lock down was a boom time for dating apps. Governments all around the world imposed physical distancing measures and stay-at-home orders which resulted in a shift toward online dating. Now the world is opening up again, but people are still stampeding toward these apps in massive numbers. The use of these apps is now sexually motivated; users want “no strings attached” casual sex. Sex is the reward, and people like it sooner, not later, and dating apps help discount the value of the later reward.
Research suggests that there is dysregulation for some individuals in the decision-making system for reward valuation between delayed and immediate rewards (Jarmolowicz et al., 2015). One way of measuring this is delayed discounting, which is the inclination to reduce the value of a reward as the temporal delay to that reward increases. Delayed Discounting tasks help characterize the impulsiveness of an individual (Green & Myerson, 2012). Impulsivity includes a wide variety of actions that , are immature, dangerous, inappropriate to the situation and done without consideration, which usually brings about negative consequences.Research indicates a correlation between impulsive decision-making and risky behavior (Bakhshani, 2014).
Numerous studies indicate that discounting measures correlate to risky sexual behavior (Chan, 2017). Dating apps have been mainstream since 2010, but the relationship between dating apps, delayed discounting and risky sexual behavior is comparatively less researched.
A study by Ryan A. Bable and Julie A. Ackerlund Brandt sought to explore this domain. The study asked two questions: One, Was the temporal discounting of hypothetical sexual activity associated with sexually risky behavior, and was this relationship affected by dating app use? And two, Were there differences in the delay discounting of sexual activity and/or sexually risky behavior between dating app users and dating app abstainers? (Bable & Brandt, 2022).The study surveyed 132 single, heterosexual, and sexually active adults between 21 and 45. The participants self-identified as dating app users. All data was collected online using Google Forms, and sexual discounting was charted using Microsoft Excel.
The participants were asked to complete a demographics questionnaire which included basic questions like age, gender, etc. They were also given a questionnaire that assessed current online dating status, previous online dating history, time spent on dating apps, and the number of online sex and non sex partners. The participants were then asked to fill the Sexual Risk Survey (SRS). The survey investigates motivations and sexual history within the six months across five categories: risky sex with uncommitted partners, risky sex acts, impulsive sexual behavior, intent to engage in risky sexual behavior, and risky anal sex. (Sweeney et al., 2019)
Lastly, the participants were asked to complete the “Hypothetical Sex Discounting Task.” The task required participants to visualize their ideal romantic partner; with this in mind, participants were asked to select sexual activity (hypothetical) for 30 minutes with a delay or immediate sexual activity for a shorter amount of time. The delays were presented in a sequence ranging from one day to six months, and each delay required all discounting questions to be completed before moving to the subsequent delay (Bable & Brandt, 2022)
The results of the study indicate that temporal sexual discounting may be related to risky sexual behavior. It does not provide conclusive evidence demonstrating the existence of sexual risk differences between app users and dating app abstainers. Still, it shows the correlation between risky sexual behavior and sexual discounting being stronger among dating app users. Furthermore, this study also suggests that hypothetical sexual discounting can predict risky sexual behavior traits in dating app users.
Acknowledging this relationship is highly beneficial as it can help understand the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Further research can help pinpoint key variables that contribute to the spread of STIs and identify at-risk populations to whom intervention measures can be recommended (Collado et al., 2016). Additionally, the phenomenon of discounting plays a huge role in understanding how relationships are formed. This subsequently affects family life, children and the community at large. A deeper dive into this could uncover its implications on factors like divorce rates, mental health issues etc.
All findings from this study have been consistent with previous literature, it does not provide any novel insights, and it is only beneficial in the sense that it provides fuel for the launch of future research. The study requires participants to conjure up an image of their ideal mate, and it does not account for any thoughts or distractions of someone else to influence the outcome. Second, the study only surveyed heterosexual adults. It has only considered the narrow purview of conventional heterosexual relationships. The study also does not regard gender differences that may culminate in risky sexual behavior, especially when literature indicates that men may discount sex at steeper rates than women. Literature also suggests that a large number of individuals who participate in risky sexual behavior are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, more factors that the study failed to evaluate.
This research is only exploratory in nature, it asks more questions than it answers, and future research on dating apps, delayed discounting, and risky sexual behavior is warranted.
(Disclaimer: Any views or opinions represented in this blog article are personal and belong solely to the author, and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. This article was written as a part of a research internship completed by the author at CABLab during May-June, 2022)
Bable, R. A., & Brandt, J. A. (2022). Delay Discounting, Dating Applications, and Risky Sexual Behavior: An Exploratory Study. The Psychological Record, 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40732-021-00506-6
Bakhshani N. M. (2014). Impulsivity: a predisposition toward risky behaviors. International Journal of High Risk Behaviors & Addiction, 3(2), e20428. https://doi.org/10.5812%2Fijhrba.20428
Chan, L. S. (2017). Who uses dating apps? Exploring the relationships among trust, sensation-seeking, smartphone use, and the intent to use dating apps based on the integrative model. Computers in Human Behavior, 72, 246-258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.02.053
Collado, A., Johnson, P. S., Loya, J. M., Johnson, M. W., & Yi, R. (2017). Discounting of condom-protected sex as a measure of high risk for sexually transmitted infection among college students. Archives of sexual behavior, 46(7), 2187-2195. https://doi.org/10.1007%2Fs10508-016-0836-x
Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2013). How many impulsivities? A discounting perspective. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 99(1), 3-13. https://doi.org/10.1002%2Fjeab.1
Jarmolowicz, D. P., Reed, D. D., DiGennaro Reed, F. D., & Bickel, W. K. (2016). The behavioral and neuroeconomics of reinforcer pathologies: Implications for managerial and health decision making. Managerial and Decision Economics, 37(4-5), 274-293. https://doi.org/10.1002/mde.2716
Sweeney, M. M., Berry, M. S., Johnson, P. S., Herrmann, E. S., Meredith, S. E., & Johnson, M. W. (2020). Demographic and sexual risk predictors of delay discounting of condom-protected sex. Psychology & health, 35(3), 366-386. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2019.1631306