The Psychology Behind Swiping Right


We can’t talk about social media and relationships without talking about online dating!

In this blog post, I will focus on the dating app, Tinder.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Tinder, it is an online dating app for smartphones. It was released in 2012, and its popularity has been growing ever since. Tinder is by far the most simple dating app, leading people to label it as superficial. Once you download the app, you select what gender you are interested in, how many miles away a potential interest can be, and an age range. Based on both of your locations, a person’s profile comes up with the person’s first name, age, how many miles away the person is from you, a few pictures, and a small “About Me” section (if he or she chose to write something). If you are interested in the person, you swipe right on your smartphone’s screen. If you aren’t, you swipe left. If two people swipe right on each other, it’s a “match,” and they will then have the ability to message between them. Nobody can message you if you haven’t matched, which is a major benefit for people who don’t want to be bombarded with messages from people they have no interest in.

Clearly, when using the app, snap judgments based on attractiveness are made. Due to this, many have labeled Tinder as a “hookup app,” while others see it as a very practical way of meeting someone to potentially have a long-term relationship with.

Why do so many people use it if there is no fancy algorithm for finding your soulmate? Why do people sit and swipe for hours, yet simultaneously complain about how much they hate Tinder? The answer: Operant Conditioning. Simply defined, operant conditioning is when our actions are followed by rewards, we will be more inclined to do the action again.

You swipe right, and it immediately comes up with, “It’s a Match!” What a self-esteem boost. You swipe right on another profile, no instant match, but maybe they haven’t seen your profile yet. You keep swiping and swiping because you know there will eventually be a match, and it gives you a mini high. This is the psychology behind why people can’t stop swiping.

So, how effective is Tinder? Psychologists tend to have differing views on this matter. While having a massive amount of potential romantic and sexual options seems advantageous, there are downfalls to this. In an MTV article, clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Welsh, who specializes in the psychology of love, discusses why this may not be beneficial:

“We spent 50,000 years roaming the savannah in groups of Homo sapiens of not more than 35 people, maybe up to 40,” Walsh explained. “Most of the people in these groups that we roamed with were related to us … and in our entire lifespan, we never met more than 150 humans.”

“We’re not programmed to be exposed to so much sexual opportunity,” Walsh said. “We’re also programmed to get really excited about a new [sexual] opportunity because it used to be rare. So you put those two together and you see that that’s why there’s an explosion of online dating….”

Users of Tinder fall prey to the psychological phenomenon referred to as “The Paradox of Choice.” Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote an entire book about the paradox of choice, and how the massive number of choices we have in our society negatively affects us psychologically. With Tinder, the paradox of choice makes it hard for us to make a choice about who we want to be with and stick with that choice. After a few dates with a match, things may be going really well, and you may like each other a lot. However, you may be thinking to yourself, “Is there someone better?” and this thought may lead you to keep swiping, instead of being satisfied with whom you are with.

Now that I’ve covered some of the negatives of Tinder, I will talk about the positives from a psychological viewpoint as well as my own experience.

Some background information about my experience with Tinder:

I had Tinder on my phone from October 26, 2014 to January 23, 2015.  Prior to October 26th, I was in a long-term relationship. When the relationship ended, my oldest brother suggested I download Tinder for a self-esteem boost and potentially have luck meeting someone. My brother successfully met someone using Tinder who he had been dating for 9 months. Although joining Tinder quickly following a breakup seems a little rash, it definitely aided in the healing process. In that small time frame, I had accumulated over 300 matches on Tinder and met 4 guys. Occasionally, it seemed like there was a promising relationship developing, but then it would abruptly end. There were the stereotypical “creeps” and people looking for a hookup. However, most people were very upfront about what they were looking for, which I respected. That way, when someone would tell they were looking for a hookup, I would just unmatch them and move along. On January 23rd, I matched with a senior at NDSU majoring in computer science (his Tinder bio was simply “NDSU. Computer Science.”), who was looking for a long-term relationship and had previously dated someone for nearly four years. We texted for a couple days, asking questions about each other and what we were looking for, etc. On January 27th, we went out to dinner for our first date. Not your stereotypical “Netflix and chill” Tinder date. We ended up wanting to see each other again. We have been together ever since.

Needless to say, I am a fan of Tinder. Unlike a lot of people, I am not ashamed to say I met my boyfriend on Tinder, and I often encourage people to download the app and start swiping.

Maybe the fact Tinder is superficial is actually advantageous to users. In an article about online dating, Benjaman Le, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Haverford College, believes physical appearance is a good start to judging how much you may like someone. He said: “Initial physical attraction is a really important first step so starting with pictures actually makes some sense. Once there’s interest based on physical attraction, then more substantial interaction and decision making can occur, but without that initial physical attraction it’s difficult to move to that next stage.” Sure, it’s a superficial way to make an initial judgment, but consider being in a bar and approaching a person of interest that you’ve never met before. Did you approach them because you could sense they liked all the same books and movies as you? Or did you approach them because they were hot? Chances are, it’s the latter. I see Tinder as an easier version of meeting people in a bar, because with Tinder, the weird ones can’t approach you and bug you. You have to mutually like each other to be able to start messaging.

In a New York Times article titled, “In Defense of Tinder,” psychological researcher Eli J. Finkel argues that “Tinder’s approach is terrific for pursuing casual sex and for meeting a serious partner.” Finkel studies online dating and has discovered that the fancy algorithms that a lot of dating sites have are basically useless for predicting initial attraction, as well as satisfaction in long-term relationships. He states that research has shown that whether two people are romantically compatible can only be determined after they have actually met. Finkel believes that superficiality is actually Tinder’s greatest asset. 

The New York Times article closes with:

But for open-minded singles — those who would like to marry someday and want to enjoy dating in the meantime — Tinder may be the best option available now. Indeed, it may be the best option that has ever existed.”

Posted by Caroline


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