« Self-Expansion: A Key for Lasting Love? | Main | MTV's "Catfish": When Truth, Lies, and Self-Concept Collide »

The Scientific Merits of Tinder: Swipe Left or Right?

In the age of online dating, science-based information about the ins and outs of dating services is both timely and important. One digital dating app has seen tremendous rises in popularity since its release - we're speaking of course about Tinder. 

Tinder is a bare bones dating app that allows users to filter in rapid succession through photos of other users who are potential matches. Who you see in your pool of potential matches is based on a very limited set of criteria, customizable to the user – age, location, and gender. When two users mutually rate each other favorably (both swipe right), they are “matched,” which prompts the app to open a dialogue between the two users (basically a texting service within the application). The rest is left to the matched users.

Interestingly, there is no scientific research out there specifically about Tinder (we are unaware of any published scientific papers in psychology or related fields that focus on behavior on Tinder). This lack of data might be because of its novelty—Tinder was released in late 2012. The lack of research could also be due to the fact that Tinder's mainstream popularity is even more recent. Despite the lack of scientific data, however, like all things that attain mainstream popularity, Tinder has been subject to both criticism and support from the general public. 

Some have criticized Tinder on the grounds that it is a shallow "hookup app," designed to allow individuals to choose each other on the basis of looks alone. While the moral/ethical implications of basing online relationship initiation decisions solely upon physical appearance can be debated elsewhere, such behavior is also very common in off-line dating. Men and women alike make decisions about partner-selection based primarily on physical appearance all the time.1 It takes only 1/10 of a second to form an impression of someone (so it must be based entirely on looks),2 and according to anecdotal reports from Tinder users, they might be swiping left/right at the same warp speed! Furthermore, people strongly associate physical beauty with other good qualities.3,4 And, when meeting face-to-face (for example, during speed-dating events), the most important factor for likeability seems to be physical appearance.5

This piece of information about a partner (physical attractiveness) might actually be a great starting point - research demonstrates that people can make pretty accurate judgments about a stranger’s personality attributes (e.g., how introverted/extroverted they are) after merely viewing his or her photo.6 These judgments may be even more accurate when viewing a potential partner in real life, where appearance-based information is more spontaneous and dynamic (e.g., constantly-changing, reactive nonverbal cues such as postures, eye contact, and facial expressions).

The fact that other information about potential matches is not present on Tinder may actually be a good thing as well. Online dating research suggests that the kind of searchable demographic information (e.g., income, education) that people often use to screen potential matches on traditional dating sites is not entirely consistent with the kind of experiential, in-the-moment information that would more strongly determine how much they enjoy each other’s company (e.g., are they affectionate, do they have a similar sense of humor, do they fit in with my friends?).7 This research also suggests that people tend to be less satisfied with their online dating experiences when they are matched using the searchable personal details that don’t necessarily reflect interpersonal compatibility. Such dating experiences are often fraught with unmet expectations of compatibility and chemistry.7

Tinder’s low-information approach may avoid this pitfall by making it more difficult for users to set such high expectations, limiting them only to the kind of information that promotes a more gut-level approach/do-not-approach decision in the real world (i.e., does this person appear interesting at a glance?). In this way, the matching process that people use via Tinder might be a useful way to establish fertile ground for a lasting relationship to grow (though we can’t know for sure yet because no study has examined long-term relationships that have formed through Tinder). By not promoting compatibility expectations based on potentially misleading criteria, Tinder users are left to “feel out” the experiential compatibility markers by simply interacting, without the influence of strong, demographically-based preconceptions about how well a date should (or shouldn’t) go. So maybe the Tinder app developers got it right after all—they’re just giving people what they want. 

Before (and still during) the age of online dating, countless couples came together based on relatively limited information about one another. In some ways it seems Tinder distills the real-life experience of “spotting a cute stranger at the bar and saying hello” into a systematic, rapid-fire decision making process that piggybacks on our ability to make reasonably accurate judgments with little detailed information about others, while minimizing expectations that could undermine how satisfying the resulting interactions turn out to be. All it requires is a smartphone, wireless connectivity, and opposable thumbs.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed. Learn more about our book and download it here. 

1Carothers, B. J., & Reis, H. T. (2013). Men and women are from Earth: Examining the latent structure of gender. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(2), 385.

2Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592-598.

3Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285–290.

4Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M., & Smoot, M. (2000). Maxims or myths of beauty? A metaanalytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 390–423.

5Luo, S., & Zhang, G. (2009). What leads to romantic attraction: Similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 933-964.

6Naumann, L. P., Vazire, S., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2009). Personality judgments based on physical appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1661-1671.

7Frost, J. H., Chance, Z., Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2008). People are experience goods: Improving online dating with virtual dates. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 22(1), 51-61.

Fred Clavél, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles
Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.


Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.
Editor Permission Required
Sorry, due to the amount of spam we receive, commenting has been disabled for visitors of this site. Please see our Facebook page for comments on recent articles posted.