We tend to associate choice with happiness in westernized societies. Don’t get me wrong -- I love living somewhere where I am never more than 20 minutes away from delicious dim sum, but also authentic neapolitan pizza, carnitas street tacos, and beef pho, but we’re all familiar with the stereotypical fight over where to eat:
Boyfriend: What do you want for dinner?
Girlfriend: I don’t care, you choose.
Boyfriend: How about that ramen place in Little Tokyo?
Girlfriend: Ok -- anywhere but there. What about that trendy plant-based restaurant where they make you order by saying “I am humble” or whatever?
Boyfriend: The last time we went there you just complained that it was expensive and you were still hungry after we ate. What about the all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ place? It’s cheap and filling.
Girlfriend: Maybe if I had actually worked out this week like I intended...
Boyfriend: Fine, then you choose before you get hangry.
Girlfriend: I can’t decide… Let me look at OpenTable.
Boyfriend: I’m going to snack on some chips while you do that.
**Two Hours Later, still at home, still undecided, and very hangry**
Girlfriend: Pass me the dang chips.
I’m not saying that I am the girlfriend from the blurb above, but I’m not not the girlfriend either. Anyways… The problem with choice arises when there are too many options. This is true when it comes to trivial decisions like where to eat for dinner, but it’s also true when it comes to very consequential decisions like who to marry.
Which brings us to the topic of today's blog: the impact of technology on your relationships. More specifically how dating apps, like Tinder and Bumble, might be reducing relationship satisfaction or causing “decision paralysis” in their users. We will also discuss some possible ways to prevent those effects, while still using the app, all based on the scientific research of psychologist Dr. Barry Schwartz outlined in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice -- Why More Is Less.
Dating apps are designed kind of like an aisle in the grocery store, full of hundreds of potential partners displayed for fast and easy comparison across a few features (appearance, age, education, job, etc.) judged to be relevant, and marketed to be desirable. Only unlike the grocery store, once you decide on a partner, unless you are polyamorous or something, it’s supposed to be mutually exclusive. The more choices, the harder it is to choose, simply because you are having to make more comparisons across more dimensions. The more choices, the harder it is to feel satisfied with whatever choice you do make, because the trade-offs are so much more salient than if you weren’t aware of the many alternatives -- regardless of how good the decision is.
When you meet your partner offline, you probably don’t have as many points of comparison besides your ex’s and maybe a few people you know from work, or around town. Beyond that you probably don’t have any expectations about them because they were basically a stranger to you before then. Lastly, because you aren’t having to choose from as many people as you would be online, choosing to date someone is less paralyzing because you aren’t overwhelmed with choices.
Unfortunately, at the end of the Tinder and Bumble are businesses without any moral or legal obligation to their users, so their incentives are out of sync with your objective as a user. They profit by keeping you as a user, and getting you to spend as much time on the app as possible. Your objective in using the app, if you are using it for dating instead of casual hookups, is to find “the one,” so that you don’t ever have to go on an awkward first date, or receive unsolicited nudes ever again. Now you don’t have to use dating apps, but as someone who used them for years, because there are lots of legitimate reasons to, I recommend that instead you learn how to swipe responsibly. That way you can benefit from everything these apps have to offer, without incurring the hit to your relationship satisfaction as a side effect.
Here are my recommendations for how to minimize the negative impact of dating apps on your subsequent relationships:
- Set a limit on how many profiles you look at per day, or week (e.g. maybe only 10 a day, and you only look on days where you might otherwise go out to a bar or something and meet people.)
- Occasionally, ask a parent or friend to swipe for you based on some agreed upon characteristics determined in advance. (e.g. ask your mom to swipe who you think would be a good partner -- but it can’t be anyone who has a photo of themselves with a tiger, or that says they are a Virgo.) If this makes you too uncomfortable, try at least talking through the decisions with someone who knows you well.
- Fun fact: modern arranged marriages not only tend to outlast modern love marriages, but they also tend to have higher rates of relationship satisfaction! As crazy as they may sound to us westerns, this actually makes a lot of sense once you realize that marriages tend to be arranged by the parent’s of the couple, who know their children well, actually do take their children’s objections into consideration, and most importantly pick partners based on good indicators of long term compatibility rather than short term attraction.
- Once you’ve matched with someone, ask them questions about their values and interests early on so you can gauge your compatibility before forming a deeper attachment. (e.g. you look really happy in all of your photos, when was the last time you cried and why?) People try to put their best foot forward, but you want to get to know the real them, not the most perfect version of themselves. Also try to be honest with yourself and them about what you are really like, so you can be confident that they like you, and not some unsustainable act you put on to please others.
- After a second successful date, delete the app to reduce temptation to keep mindlessly swiping for a confidence boost or entertainment. Additionally, if you are comfortable, express this to the other person and ask them to consider doing that same for the reasons we outlined above.
- Remember that dating choices aren’t permanent, and everything you do is practice. Learn from your mistakes, and you’ll make better decisions in your next relationship.
- Lower your expectations. (Or don’t. This strategy really works, but it feels wrong to encourage this. So maybe just stop watching rom-com’s because apparently they also make you less satisfied with your relationship.)
We wish you a Happy Valentine’s here at Smart Talk, and hope this post can help you navigate this new and sometimes confusing world of online dating.
Written by Sophie Wright
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