Many people I talk to find dating apps addictive. They inspire impulsive use more than most other digital media we interact with. I believe they are cognitively consuming, crowding out space for thinking about other things.
There are a couple reasons for this. Variable reward, sexual stimulation, and the continuum of digital sexual addiction (to be explained).
First, what makes dating apps particularly addictive is variable reward. This makes other things — like texts, emails, and social media - impulsive and arguably addictive. What happens is we don’t know when we’ll receive a message or other interaction and the resulting dopamine reward (the dopamine reward comes from the social desirability we feel from receiving the digital message or other interaction).
Like with all rewards whose timing we cannot predict, we maximally engage with behavior leading to those rewards. We maximally text, email, and upload content on social media. We do this because it increases our likelihood of receiving a digital interaction and the resulting dopamine reward. We maximally check texts, emails, and social media notifications in anticipation of the reward, because that allows us to most quickly get the reward and respond to the digital interaction.
With dating apps, it’s the same — only worse. Dating apps have more layers of variable reward than texting, emailing, and using social media. Not only is receiving a new message difficult to predict, but also receiving new match is essentially difficult to predict. Furthermore, the quality of the matches themselves are difficult to predict. And for unpredictable messages, the sentiment of messages — the positivity or negativity in response to your previous message— is also difficult to predict (situational to the temporary emotional context of the person responding). So not only is there uncertainty of when we will receive a match or a message, but there is uncertainty of the quality of the match and the quality of the message. To add to all of this, there is also the unpredictability of the quality of profiles shown when swiping.
What makes the unpredictability of the timing and quality of matches and messages so addicting is that, unlike most texts and emails, this activity has a direct sexual context. Our sex drive feeds the addictiveness of interacting with these multiple layers of variable reward.
What in turn amplifies the addictiveness of this activity is that it fuels a continuum of digital sexual stimulation that many of us are in. We experience sexual anxiety when on Facebook and especially Instagram and then alleviate that sexual anxiety through porn: through the same digital interface that created the sexual anxiety. With porn, the access to novelty tends to increase how often you are masturbating and ejaculating. Then we are abnormally deprived of sexual energy and turn back to sexual content on social media — which only leads to the porn and the total elimination of sexual energy— to temporarily restore it.
Dating apps serve a similar function to social media in the continuum of digital sexual stimulation. They produce sexual anxiety from producing sexual stimulation without an immediate channel for it. By evaluating sexually stimulating pictures, we mentally interact with them, and this produces sexual stimulation leading to the sexual anxiety. Dating apps also produce additional sexual anxiety (deprival of release) because we are often not immediately — if at all — met with right swipes after giving our right swipes. Many profiles we right swipe are no longer active, and unless we spend money it is hard (for guys) to be shown to the active users. We then alleviate the sexual anxiety through porn on the same digital interface that created it. Then we turn to dating apps and social media for more sexual stimulation throughout the day to restore sexual energy, kickstarting the loop again.
All these things — variable reward, sexual stimulation, and the continuum of digital sexual stimulation — cause interaction with dating apps to seem addicting: to lead to impulsive use despite not always really wanting to.
They’re addicting and consuming, for now. Be careful of how they are influencing your interaction with other media, like porn. Dating apps can be helpful, but we should be aware of the costs and be ready to spend more energy restraining ourselves from addictive use.
In sum, dating apps make certain things more efficient but also bring new inefficiencies. Certain people, depending on their circumstances, and with full understanding of what is happening, can decide whether using dating apps is right for them.