By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Las Vegas used to have slot machines known as one-armed bandits. You only needed to move one arm to let them take all your money. Most slot machines now have buttons or a digital interface, but I remember seeing people in casinos hypnotically putting money in the slot, pulling the lever, listening and watching the cylinders spin, and every now and then getting a (usually small) reward. It’s addictive. Why? Because even though it is a repetitive action, the possibility of being rewarded causes the brain to experience novelty. And our brains love novelty. The fact that the reward is intermittent makes you feel you have to pull that lever one more time. If you do, you might just hit the jackpot.
It occurs to me that some of the new apps for dating or hooking up are similarly addictive. For example, consider Tinder, which is available on all platforms. You can scroll through a plethora of faces and find ones in your local area. Then you swipe to the right if you’re interested or to the left if you are disinterested. It’s all anonymous. And like the one-armed bandit, it’s addictive because it provides your brain with an endless stream of novelty. Am I attracted to her? Is he hot? Will the next one be even hotter? Is she nearby? Maybe we can hook up right now!
That’s another similarity between slot machines and hook-up apps: both answer the need we feel for immediacy. Just as gambling promises instant riches, our date must be instantly available.
I’m not saying that I oppose any form of gambling. If you have some extra cash, enjoy playing a game, and know when to stop, then have at it. Similarly, if you enjoy the process of hooking up, that is your prerogative. But if you are using an app such as Tinder in an attempt to find a serious partnership, that’s another story. I would venture to say your odds of finding what you want are not high.
There are other issues here, as well. The brain may love novelty, but it hates having too many choices. We live in a culture in which we can pick and choose from many different items when we go shopping, and we can usually take things back for a 30-day return. We don’t have to make a commitment. We don’t have to choose one or two things, and stick to those. But Barry Schwartz found that people are not happy with too many choices. We do better with a limited number of choices that allow us to pick one thing and fully commit to it. Whether it’s a car, a pair of shoes, a new dress, a house, a career, or lover—we are more likely to find a happy result if we’re not choosing between multiple items. You may think that if you can keep dating different people, swapping out old partners for new ones, you will eventually be able to hit perfection. But it doesn’t work that way. The search for perfection will always leads to disappointment.
As a couple therapist who stands for secure-functioning relationships, one of my main concerns about the current dating technology is that it is focused first and primarily on people’s characteristics and only secondarily (if at all) on principles of relating. Apps encourage you to look for someone who’s handsome or beautiful, or sexy, or tall or short, or has blonde hair and blue eyes. Instead, I believe you should first consider the kind of relationship you want—or even better, must have—in order to be happy. For example, should the relationship be mutual? Should it be fair? How should my partner and I treat each other? Dating apps that don’t have this kind of focus are doing you a disservice. They are bandits in the sense that they rob you of the likelihood of finding a viable, long-lasting relationship.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, NY: Ecco Press.
For more about dating, I’d like to invite you to purchase my new book, Wired for Dating, at Amazon.