In 2022, the most valuable commodities we have to offer are our time and attention… and in 2022, where we allocate them can cost us in more ways than one.
The Choice Paradox (also known as “Choice Paralysis”) is defined by Techtarget as “an observation that having many options to choose from, rather than making people happy and ensuring they get what they want, can cause them stress and problematize decision-making”. It was first popularized by Barry Schwartz who observed that having more choices is actually stifling when it comes to every other aspect of life, whereas having less choices leads to greater satisfaction. Many articles have echoed this frequently met dilemma in the online dating world… but what if it’s intended that we don’t make a choice?
Schwartz points out that Choice Paralysis can end in consumers not making a choice. However, it can also lead to “buyer’s remorse”, which-in dating looks like leaving your partner or date to look for where the grass could be greener.
When a consumer gets overwhelmed they:
a. Don’t make a choice.
b. Make a choice they later regret because of all the other potential options.
c. Miss out on a good opportunity because they took too long deciding.
Choice Paralysis is usually not something that works for your average business. However, apps are not your average business. In a market that thrives off of time, attention, and engagement, like many other businesses they don’t want you to leave empty- handed… but unlike other businesses, they actually don’t want you to leave at all. For dating apps (and many apps in general) attention is a currency in itself.
Your time, your attention, they are valuable because they lead to other commodities like personal data, preferences, and visibility.
Whether you make a choice and experience buyer’s remorse later, you don’t make a choice, or you miss out on a good opportunity because you were distracted by all the other choices, this makes consumers unhappy… but that lack of gratification can be used. Apps know this so they exploit it–repeating the process for user engagement.
How Does It Work?
In this sense, apps utilize endless access and exposure to effectuate our most unrealistic expectations, exploit our need to connect, harvest our data to sell and continue to perpetuate a cycle of unfulfillment and uncertainty to keep us coming back for more. They profit from our engagement while many also levy our data for sales to ad companies in exchange for the prospect of finding someone who meets our quota–or at least, a string of endless encounters.
It is alarming how many people report feeling tired and apathetic about online dating. One would imagine that with so many options and prospects, we’d be exhilarated, but many users get overwhelmed by choices as they would at a grocery store. Articles have been written about dating “burn out” due to the oversaturation of the dating world. Several have compared it to being like a full-time job–coining phrases like Dating App Fatigue and Dating Burn Out.
One Buzzfeed article even alleged that modern dating was “Hell On Earth”. Swarms of people detest social media and hate apps for all the same reasons, pontificating about what life would be like if we all just “unplug”.
What if we stopped scrolling Tik Tok or stopped swiping on Bumble? We talk to each other about how much we hate online culture when we are all partly to blame, and yet few people are willing to edit their app behavior or delete Tinder because… we’re fearmongered about “missing out” on connection one way or another.
How Do Swipes Make Money Off Of FOMO?
FOMO is the acronym for “Fear Of Missing Out” and it is more powerful than we give it credit. Dating apps are not successful because their reviews are overwhelmingly positive… in fact reviews are closely split at 42% being negative to 57% being positive according to Pew Research in 2020. So why are those who’ve had negative experiences often still on them? It’s because we’re afraid of what we’re missing and never underestimate what fear of being left out can do to our consumer habits.
Without even realizing it, by being a user, you are not only a client, but you’re also an employee of the app. Tinder, for example, uses your data to target ads and sell to companies. In a way, your swiping habits are inadvertently branding the app. As the apps collect more and more users, they gross in premiums and some even continue to upcharge anyone upwards of age 30. By allowing users to also change location, decide who sees their profile, or hide their age, etc apps are raking in quite a bit annually.
Dating apps also know to target our worst insecurities just as body modification photo editing apps exploit our cultural obsession with conventional attractiveness. Profile boosts allow users to be seen more and gain more visibility in a short amount of time. Reports that Tinder Premium users are frequently inexplicably hidden from the deck are among many rumors that Tinder is trying to incentivize users to pay even more for engagement.
The gamification of dating also factors in. The more matches you have, the better you feel, just as many Instagram users attribute their follower count to an appraisal of their image. Suffice it to say, social media and online dating apps have a rather drug-like affect on users. Both utilize algorithms to personalize your experience, while selling data and keeping us engaged with viewers and likes to raise our dopamine levels. This is also why they are so difficult to part with and the fact that they are rapidly gaining in popularity doesn’t help.
The instant gratification of a like or a few matches promises connection and social value. The more we have, the more valued we feel, even if this level of engagement isn’t substantive. Whether or not it means anything, society predicates much of our worth on the quantity of engagement that we can solicit from others through posts and profiles (not so much the quality) and this superficial need to cash-in on the promise of eventual intimacy or social belonging at the expense of our private data is deeply unethical.
Many express dissatisfaction in this premise, yet few can remain offline for an extended period of time because we’re simply afraid of missing out and feeling “disconnected”.
Nonetheless, more and more users are ensnared and these industries have become integral to our social fabric, unfortunately.
What Is The Worst That Could Happen To Our Data?
Well, if these sites get hacked, your privacy is on the line: locations, preferences, conversations, etc. In an article on The Guardian written in 2017, studies reported that more and more users have been willing to disclose sensitive information about themselves for the privilege of using apps. Under the EU Protection Law, EU citizens can request their data be given to them. Even upon soliciting this information, what you receive might very well be just “the tip of the iceberg”– as Judith Duportail points out in her article.
However, this isn’t the case in every part of the world. Not everyone will have the right to request their own data from apps and even if you do… does that automatically make it ethical?
In a more recent NPR article published in 2020, apps like Tinder, Match.com, Grindr, OKCupid and more were found to be in violation of these data protection laws and were accused of effectively surveilling users. Unique identifiers like your phone and IP address can be traced, which can allow third party companies to spy on consumers on every device and across multiple platforms even when they’re not using the apps.
Even if you allow dating apps to use your preferences for targeted ads and other personalized features…whatever advertising companies and third parties buying your data can track your online activity anywhere and on any device. Bear in mind, apps are still high-grossing businesses.
Sacrificing Our Privacy For Access To Endless Choices Isn’t Really Fruitful or Efficient
There will always be something or someone more attractive, someone more wealthy–or any other superficial quality that we’re socialized to look for these days. Even if we don’t know for sure, the fact that we have endless profiles to scroll through is precisely how apps keep us coming back for more. Apps capitalize on the human need for connection, visibility, and intimacy–all the while, many of them are harvesting our data.
The illusion of choice, the idea that we have unlimited choices and we can genuinely find the right person, is a par for the course that is partly to blame. Perhaps more matches, more follows, more likes, more dates, more hookups, and more engagement does have a fulfilling ring to it…but only for the short term.
Psychologically, for the long-term, we often become overstimulated and overwhelmed and this plays out especially in our addiction to swiping and scrolling.
As we become overwhelmed with choice, we become more underwhelmed with our choices and our expectations become less and less grounded in reality.
Gratification is the name of the game, but our appetites are insatiable and highly individualized as a result of the algorithms we train.
A regular business might take measures to reduce choice to get buyers to buy so that they don’t leave the site without a shopping bag…but dating apps do the opposite as a way of keeping users engaged and effectively calling them back to the apps.
By commodifying sex and gamifying the experience of connection, we become both desensitized and intrigued. Dating apps don’t prioritize finding connection so much as they do the prospect of finding many all at once.
Whether or not someone is available to us doesn’t matter, as long as their profiles are accessible, they’re looked at as “options”. Infinite options means potentially never making a choice to settle. As The School Of Life pointed out in a recent video, we may have many choices, however, the reality is that we don’t actually have many options.
Realizing that we can meet many people does not impact the fact that each of us can only and may only be loved by a select few–if any.
In this way, it is not choice itself, but the illusion of choice that dating apps create, which is what sabotages users: It keeps them married to the dating app process rather than committed to any potential benefit of being on an app because ultimately, apps are designed for engagement. Not only does high engagement sabotage love, but it conditions us to be less compassionate, realistic, committed, patient, and emotionally mature.
Lots of options– or the misleading idea that we have many options at our disposal and can never run out– doesn’t equate to more opportunity for sex and this is even more true for relationship prospects.
While our thumbs can engage with hundreds of profiles a week, this makes no difference in the realm of finding a lasting connection except that we are less likely to be satisfied when the opportunity for one presents itself.
Believe it or not, less options make us happier, according to psychology. Less choice means bigger investment and bigger return on investment.
It can mean being more curious, patient, forgiving, compassionate and even more emotionally mature in how we evaluate and treat the connections we encounter.
This is called Satisficing, which Oxford Languages defines as deciding to pursue a course of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal.
The promise of instant gratification in the short term (whether through eligible matches or an abundance of casual sex partners) keeps users in a cycle. Just as a shopper will spend more time comparing products until they just get overwhelmed.
Even those who are exhausted by online dating are highly unlikely to stop using it as a mode of connection because dating apps have been marketed so well to lead its users to believe that somewhere out there, the perfect match exists… and more importantly, without dating and social media… we’re often told that we stand no chance at connecting in the real world.
The dangers of algorithms play on our hyper-individualist tendencies when we examine how many people are viewed as a “means to an end” instead of an individual, whether that be sex or a relationship. We’re taught to overlook the person in favor of our own needs and what we can get from said person. Since the rise of dating apps, we’ve also seen a steep rise in sexual harassment, cheating, stalking, and a steep decline in healthy communication.
Pew Research conducted research on the statistic of people who lie on dating apps and reports that 71% of users find that to be common place behavior. (See graph below)
As stated in an article by Pew Research , harassment, assault, and unwanted contact is also commonplace behavior. As the text reports, “For example, 60% of female users ages 18 to 34 say someone on a dating site or app continued to contact them after they said they were not interested, while a similar share (57%) report being sent a sexually explicit message or image they didn’t ask for.”
What Is Maximizing and Why Is It Relevant to The Sociology Behind Dating?
Maximizing, the opposite of Satisficing, as Barry Schwartz as well as Psychology Today describes it, is when individuals become so fixated on finding what they perceive to be “the best option” that they effectively treat people like articles of clothing to be tried on. For this reason, Maximizing can look like collecting or entertaining “all” options indefinitely.
Think Anthony Bridgerton in Season 2 of Bridgerton. Like him, users are often never quite satisfied with the person in front of them, superimposing criteria onto our dates without really listening, viewing those we deemed worthy as though they were “the best we’ve found yet” just as Anthony treated Edwina before leaving her for her sister (someone he initially wouldn’t have even considered based on age and compatibility).
What happens is that we miss the point of connecting and hyper fixate on minor flaws while also projecting our individual needs onto others. Perhaps we’d prefer someone with a different style or they’re just a few inches too short, height-wise… or perhaps we had a disagreement and we’d prefer someone who doesn’t challenge us.
The grass is always greener.
The problem with this is that it’s predicated on individualism and convenience which often aren’t healthy principles to take into our dating life or our behavioral patterns online.
The more individualized our choice-making becomes, the longer it takes to make a decision. This is why, often times, Maximizers come up empty-handed and have to start the process over and over again until they’re in a repetitive cycle of “dating disillusionment”.
However, because of this idea, when we find compatible individuals, we’re less likely to stay with them and more likely to self-sabotage so that we eventually make our way back to the apps in search of our fairy person.
Satisficers, on the other hand, can be equally as picky as Maximizers. The only difference is that they make a decision, compromise, and are able to maintain focus and investment on the path that they have chosen without letting other potential paths distract them.
Unlike Maximizers, they don’t ruminate on the prospect of what else is out there. This also results in healthier and more fulfilling interactions that feel more emotionally safe.
Prior to dating apps, Satisficing was far more the norm as people were forced to choose from a smaller pool of people. Choices were limited and people weren’t reduced to profiles. People were more likely to invest and get to know others as individuals and far more likely to compromise and move forward through disagreements.
Maximizing and Satisficing can not only be used for dating. These terms are also used when it comes to business investments. Maximizing and ruminating can lead to missed opportunity and zero gain, whereas satisficing can be a more lucrative trajectory for your financial future.
Let’s Reevaluate The Statistics And Make a Cost-Benefit Analysis
While apps statistically do help people find a partner (or partners), what consumers fail to look at is the longevity of these relationships. Apps often tout their statistics to entice users to sign up with the promise of a connection. At first glance, dating apps do look promising. 54% of Americans on dating apps have found love and according to eharmony, 20% worldwide have met their partner online…but the statistics of long-term satisfying relationships is actually very low– indicating that a lot of the love found on apps doesn’t last very long. This is something to keep in mind.
According to statistics published in June of 2022 on Cloudwards, “Only 13% of users got engaged or married from meeting someone on a dating site, though. Meanwhile, 23.7% claim that they’ve never had more than a date or two. Nearly 15% had a relationship that lasted less than six months, 7.2% had a relationship between six months and a year and 14.7% had a relationship that lasted more than a year.”
Few relationships make it to 6 months. Even fewer make it to a year. While online magazines like Bustle praised these stats as remarkably optimistic, that’s actually staggeringly low compared to the 323.9 million users that are using dating apps to connect. The cost and the benefit don’t look as promising when we zoom out from the success rate and look at the bigger picture.
These stats could also suggest a more dismal observation: that even with an endless pool of people, individuals are more likely to choose the prospect of finding someone over those they actually found.
Studies Show That Dating App Success and Intention to Commit Infidelity Are Closely Linked–Let’s Examine The Rate of Infidelity in Relationships That Began Online
Now let’s compare the above statistics to the rate of infidelity. When we take into account the rate of love found on dating apps and compare that to the rate of infidelity–this is where things get interesting.
According to an article on Science Direct, a study with 395 participants was conducted and found that the dating app success rate was indirectly correlated with the intention to cheat… a rather strange find that changes how we view dating apps relationship statistics. The article states:
“The findings indicate that self-perceived desirability mediates the relationship between perceived dating app success and intention to commit infidelity, providing a more nuanced understanding of the cognitive process underlying dating app use and intention to cheat. This finding provides support for equity theory by illustrating that people who may feel they are more romantically desirable than their partners, and therefore are over-benefitting the relationship, are more likely to exhibit a greater intention to pursue other romantic or sexual opportunities.”
The article concludes that according to the study, individuals with high dating app success rates are highly likely to cheat on their partners and seek out opportunities for sexual and emotional infidelity.
When we examine the cheating statistics among those who found love online, things get even more dumbfounding.
In 2019, YouGovAmerica reported that 17% of dating app survey participants in the US alone self-identified themselves to be using dating apps to cheat on their partner(s).
However, this is only the beginning of the tip of the iceberg as just three years later, in 2020 Business Insider also reported that a whopping 45% of US dating app participants polled that they were cheated on by their partners through online dating.
These statistics, however, only were conducted in the United States. The number, worldwide, is far greater.
So while 7-15% of online interactions result in a long-term commitment, a substantial portion likely also involve infidelity that started online as well–through social media and through dating apps primarily.
In fact, in an even more recent study, BBC reported that 3 in 10 adults on average turn to infidelity and that statistic has jumped to 48%…nearly half of those in long-term relationships. BBC also goes onto say “Accordingly, would-be daters face lots of emotional hazards as they swipe and scroll. In 2018, a team of researchers across the Netherlands and US found 42% of people with dating-app Tinder profiles were married or in a relationship but still seeking dates. Meanwhile, abuse in the form of trolling is prevalent on the apps; users also endure ghosting, as matches disappear without a trace, and some people are also targeted with unsolicited graphic photos. ”
The article also mentions that in a study conducted in an undergraduate university of 550 participants, 64% (352/550 participants) reported to recognizing someone on Tinder that they knew to be in a long-term exclusive relationship.
These statistics are rather alarming but still unsurprising given the pervasiveness of hook-up culture, the convenience of romantic interactions, and the onset of COVID.
So if a little less than a fourth of the 323.9 million dating app users have found love online, but only 14-15% of that same quarter have a long-term relationship at most, 7% of that statistic get married, and the rate of infidelity on dating apps is nearly half of the 20% in relationships that started online(according to BBC)– and based on studies, presumably more than half of the partners in relationships are identified cheating online without their partner’s knowledge (by other dating app users), then perhaps dating apps are not as promising and optimistic as their literature suggests.
If users that were looking for a genuine connection knew that more than half of successful online relationships lead to infidelity, would they even be swiping to begin with?
It’s important to measure the success rates with the rates of relationship longevity and infidelity. These ratios actually work against much of what we’re led to believe from the way many dating apps are marketed.
It’s no wonder that so many return to dating apps ultimately because even when you make it off the app, you’re still set up to fail and make your way back to the app eventually.
Even when we ignore these statistics, we must also reckon with the truth: that the business of apps thrives on our engagement and search for satisfaction. The potential that most apps are more interested in our circumstantial dissatisfaction than our satisfaction is simply on brand for the way apps work. In fact, it’s on brand for how consumerism works.
Dating apps don’t have to supply a demand to convince you that they can supply a demand. People do connect all the time–this is true, but it can often come at a cost, whether that be privacy, infidelity, or longevity.
Apps like Hinge, for example, market themselves by promising that users will get off the app…but can we say confidently that these users will never get back on again or that their partners may not still be using them to entertain other “choices”?
Finally, is it all even worth it when we know that our privacy is at risk of being sold and distributed for profit? Suffice it to say that from what we know about our fear of missing out and what we know of algorithms, responses will vary based on personal preferences.