Swipe right for...anxiety?
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
It is quite evident that millennials and generation Z, or Gen z as they are popularly called, have brought with them a liberated mindset and challenged the boundaries of the comfort zone that the previous generations lived in. Such changes in ideology among the youth of our country can be seen, for example, in our attitude towards marriage, relationships, and dating. In terms of marriage, we are looking beyond potential partners selected by our parents; in terms of relationships we are expressing our sexualities and challenging the bounds of heteronormative principles more openly; and in terms of dating we are taking our time to explore our options by casually dating, experimenting with ethical non-monogamy and/or inviting technology into our dating lives through the use of dating applications (apps). In fact, India has now become the second largest market for dating app usage after the United States. In 2017, around 52% of urban Indians aged between 25-34 years and 30.7% of urban Indians between 18-24 years were using dating apps. The Pandemic has brought with it what dating app executives refer to as the Covid Effect : the growth of users in cities outside the metros, without any specific marketing push, contributing to 31 million users in 2020 (1).
For those of you who are unfamiliar, dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, etc. allow you to view other app users in your proximity and “match” with them by mutually swiping right or rejecting them by swiping left. Each user's profile typically includes basic details such as age, education, profession, etc., a few pictures and the occasional short biographies to judge them on.
The effectiveness of these apps in finding a partner, in whatever capacity you may be looking for, is debatable. Even more so for those searching for long term commitment. Moreover, excessive use of these apps has been linked to deteriorating mental health levels in young people. At this point I’d be a hypocrite if I told you these apps are all bad because that is, in fact, untrue. Not only have I personally enjoyed using these apps and encouraged friends to do so, but I also know individuals who are in happy relationships with people they met on dating apps. There are two sides to each coin and my focus for this article is on the downside
One would assume that having a plethora of choices literally at your fingertips would make finding a compatible partner easier. However, contrary to popular belief, the increased number of choices that these apps offer actually makes for a less satisfactory experience. Psychological research suggests that when we are presented with multiple options, we tend to put more pressure on ourselves to make the perfect choice, and feel let down when it turns out to be less than perfect.
For example, while using these apps, have you ever found yourself confused as to who to swipe right on? So you end up rejecting candidates, hoping for better options, only to wish you had swiped right earlier instead? Or maybe you find the “perfect” candidate and match with them, but end up having a dry conversation that doesn't match your expectations? This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘Paradox of Choice’, coined by Barry Schwartz (2) , a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College. An explanation for this disappointment is because we convince ourselves that even though we did well, we could have possibly done better. The pleasure we gain from having more options is nullified by the anticipation of selecting the wrong option. This point of view was challenged by Benjamin Scheibehenne (3) , a professor of cognition and consumer behavior at the University of Geneva. He argues that if humans were in fact overloaded by choices, then simple everyday decisions would become paralysing. Instead, humans have a tendency to use mental shortcuts to filter and reduce the number of choices they face. For instance, if you only swipe right on people of a specific age, height or even profession, you are putting into action Scheibehenna’s theory. While there is evidence to support these contradicting perspectives, both agree that humans have a tendency to limit choices to reduce the stress of decision making.
Bear with me because I’m going to get a little technical here. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for logical reasoning among other things, can get overwhelmed under pressure. Research at Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making (4) has shown that when people are bombarded with complex information, brain activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) increases-but only to a certain point- after which it decreases much like your old laptop starts to hang when you open too many tabs.
A study was conducted at Harvard University (5) wherein participants were bombarded with a series of similar options. Making decisions in this manner was found to light up the part of the brain associated with anxiety on their fMRI scans. According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, continued stress such as when we are provided with too many choices, can deplete dopamine levels and cause despair (6) . It should also be noted that low levels of dopamine are linked to clinical disorders such as depression and anxiety. So, if increased dating app usage can lower dopamine levels in the brain, and a decrease in dopamine can be linked with serious mental conditions, it is entirely possible that increased dating app usage can lead to a deterioration in one’s mental health.
Several psychological studies that explored the effects of increased dating app usage on one’s mental health have found just that. Not only was increased usage of dating apps linked to higher levels of depression, anxiety and psychological distress (7) , but it was also found to contribute to both men’s and women’s body dissatisfaction and negatively affect men’s self-esteem (8) . This is possibly because these apps increase the user’s awareness of superficial characteristics such as their physical appearance, and encourage comparison on these grounds.
With all these negative consequences, why do millennials and gen Zs continue to invest their time in dating apps? The answer is quite simple, because of the instant gratification they provide. The thrill of coming across a profile you like by chance (a.k.a the app’s algorithm), swiping right and immediately matching (indicating that they have swiped right on you as well) provides this instant thrill. Much like a shot of espresso running through your body early in the morning. However, this reinforcement is intermittent and unpredictable. You don't match with every person you swipe right on because they may not swipe right on you. But the hope that they do is enough to keep you going. Like I said earlier, there are two sides to each coin. Technology has made several aspects of our lives easier. This extends to dating as well. Dating apps expose you to a whole world of individuals you may not have ever known otherwise. At the same time, they curate lists of specific candidates based on your preferences. If you're a shy person who finds the dating world overwhelming, it allows you to get to know someone virtually and then meet them in real life, on your own terms. However, while focusing on all these positives and more, we still need to acknowledge and be mindful of the negatives. Happy swiping!
1. Mehrotra,K. Surge in dating apps in Tier-II cities, but skew against women. The Indian Express [Internet]. 2021 Jan 18. Available from: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/dating-apps-tier-ii-cities-women-7150680/
2. Schwartz B. The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York. 2004 Dec 10.
3. Scheibehenne B, Greifeneder R, Todd PM. Can there ever be too many options? A meta-analytic review of choice overload. Journal of consumer research. 2010 Oct 1;37(3):409-25.
4. Venkatraman V, Reeck C. Decision neuroscience. A handbook of process tracing methods. 2019 Jun 10.
5. Svoboda E. The problem with modern romance is too much choice. Nautilus. 2016 Oct 6. Available from : http://nautil.us/issue/41/selection/the-problem-with-modern-romance-is-too-much-choice %20%20%20
6. Fisher H. Anatomy of love: A natural history of mating, marriage, and why we stray (completely revised and updated with a new introduction). WW Norton & Company; 2016 Feb 1.
7. Holtzhausen N, Fitzgerald K, Thakur I, Ashley J, Rolfe M, Pit SW. Swipe-based dating applications use and its association with mental health outcomes: a cross-sectional study. BMC psychology. 2020 Dec ;8(1):1-2.
8. Strübel JL, Petrie TA. Tinder: Swiping Self Esteem?. American Psychological Association. 2016.
9. Overheardbumble [Internet]. Instagram.com. 2021 [cited 2021 Jun 22]. Available from https://www.instagram.com/p/CPmZkYWn25C/
10. Make Up Your Mind Cute Brain PUn sticker [Internet]. Redbubble.com. [cited 2021 Jun 22]. Available from: https://www.redbubble.com/i/sticker/Make-Up-Your-Mind-Cute-Brain-PUn-by-punnybo ne/56630163.EJUG5