In Defense of Tinder
This article originally appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 8, 2015.
By Eli J. Finkel
Is the smartphone revolution sullying the online dating world?
The old paradigm for online dating was a website like eHarmony or Match.com. Courtesy of an elaborate algorithm, you studied detailed profiles of potential dates, initiated contact through an anonymized email system and, if you got a response, began a conversation that might lead to a date. Perhaps with your future spouse.
The new paradigm is a mobile app like Tinder. You quickly browse photos on your phone, swiping to the right if the photo appeals, to the left if it doesn’t. If the attraction is mutual — that is, if both of you have swiped right — you might try to set up a date for, say, five minutes later. The pleasures of married life may not be foremost in your mind.
Critics complain that Tinder is a hookup app, a good way to pursue a one-night stand but a lousy way to start a serious relationship. But this is a false dichotomy. As a psychological researcher who studies online dating, I believe that Tinder’s approach is terrific for pursuing casual sex and for meeting a serious relationship partner.
Historically, I have been ambivalent about the online dating industry. In 2012, before Tinder existed (and before smartphone-based dating went mainstream), I worked with a team of researchers to publish a comprehensive assessment of the industry. We concluded that online dating had produced one immense benefit for singles: It expanded the pool of potential partners. But there was also a big problem: The industry’s two major ideas about how singles should get access to one another were misguided.
The first faulty idea was that you could get a sense of your compatibility with a potential partner through profile browsing. As a team of researchers including the psychologist Dan Ariely demonstrated, browsing profiles is virtually useless for discerning the sort of information that actually matters in a successful relationship. Curated text and a handful of pictures will never be able to tell you whether the first-date conversation will crackle or whether you’ll feel a desire to discover what makes this person tick.
The second faulty idea was that effective matchmaking algorithms could be based on information provided by individuals who were unaware of one another’s existence. One study (which I worked on) demonstrated that such information was highly ineffective at predicting initial attraction; another study found that such information was nearly useless in predicting satisfaction in long-term relationships. As almost a century of research on romantic relationships has taught us, predicting whether two people are romantically compatible requires the sort of information that comes to light only after they have actually met.
Hence my ambivalence about online dating. But the rise of smartphone-based dating has made me more sanguine.
Yes, Tinder is superficial. It doesn’t let people browse profiles to find compatible partners, and it doesn’t claim to possess an algorithm that can find your soul mate. But this approach is at least honest and avoids the errors committed by more traditional approaches to online dating.
With Tinder, online dating is capitalizing on its strength — an expanded dating pool — and then accelerating the process of actually meeting someone. In this respect, it takes dating back to the pre-Internet era, to a time when people met potential partners, about whom they knew relatively little, at parties, bars, dog parks — situations in which people can get a strong initial sense of romantic compatibility.
Smartphone-based dating isn’t perfect. Perhaps even more so than other types of dating, it emphasizes physical appearance. And there’s nothing special about Tinder apart from its market dominance at the moment; other smartphone-based dating options, like Zoosk and Hinge, might serve you just as well.
But for open-minded singles — those who would like to marry someday and want to enjoy dating in the meantime — Tinder may be the best option available now. Indeed, it may be the best option that has ever existed.
- Eli J. Finkel is a professor of psychology and a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University.