Bobby, a slender twenty-nine year old guy with a scruffy beard and scruffy shoes, shifts in his seat. “I can’t seem to stay interested in anyone I’m dating, because I’m always looking at my iPhone to see if I have new matches.”
We’re in the middle of our psychotherapy session at my New York office. I’ve been a therapist for quite a while, but this conversation is a first. He tells me that his use of a dating app is becoming compulsive.
Millions of people are using these newest connection tools, but Bobby got started on this particular site because he has a friend who works for the start-up that created the thing. “My buddy tells me that all he thinks about is how to get more people to sign up and keep using his product. That makes sense. It’s all about the number of eyeballs, right? And I guess it’s working, because I’m hooked.”
I tell him how this happens. Research indicates that there is nothing as addictive as getting regular, but unpredictable, rewards. Each time a sexy woman presses the button to say she likes him, he gets a nice bump of the happy brain chemical, dopamine. He likes how this feels, but it doesn’t last forever, so he wants it again. Since he never knows if, or when, he will get a response, there is this buildup of anticipation. He has to keep checking his device for that approval and then, finally, when the icon pops on – bam! That’s a dopamine schwing!
Enough of those mini love bumps, and he’s conditioned. A bad habit is formed. This kind of app is perfect for setting up that kind of addiction. It requires minimal effort for maximal random reward. You press a button, and once in a while, a beautiful girl says yes.
“Yeah, it’s exciting,” Bobby says, “but I think this thing is really starting to screw me up. I was texting with someone who I’d gone out with a few times, and I felt my phone vibrate. Once I saw the new match, I just wanted to dump the woman I was texting with so I could pursue this new hot thing.” He went on. “I’m beginning to forget about even wanting a relationship. This is too easy and too much fun.”
Before he knew it, the communication between him and woman-number-one diminished, and then, somehow, mid-text, it all evaporated. He’d had, as he and his friends call it, another micro-breakup.
He says he’s having a good time, but when he tells me this story, the expression on his face doesn’t look very happy.
Bobby leaves, and Sylvia comes in. She says, “I don’t understand what is wrong with me. This guy I met on Tinder texts me, and asks if I want to go out on Friday night. I say, ‘sure.’ Then he writes, ‘That was enthusiastic,’ and I never hear from him again. Was I supposed to write in caps? Use an exclamation point, an emoji?”
Sylvia, a smart, fit, tall woman in her mid-thirties, has a different agenda, and problem, with dating apps. “I’m trying not to hate myself, but there really must be something wrong with me. I can’t seem to get anyone decent to go out on a second date with me. I can barely get a first date.”
Sylvia thought she had everything worked out when she found a guy who had a great job working for a hedge fund who wanted to marry her. The guy panicked after the engagement was announced and called off the marriage, and now she is convinced that her chance for love and family are over. It’s hard to convince her otherwise.
“You go on these sites,” she tells me. “The only guys on there who will respond to me are losers.”
Sylvia leaves, and I do a Skype session with an out-of-work, fifty-year-old gay actor, with a bit of a paunch and thinning hair. “I’m determined to get a boyfriend this year,” he tells me. “You know, I don’t look nearly as good as I did twenty years ago, but with Grindr I’ve been having no problem getting sex. But this relationship thing, it’s impossible!”
I learn many things in my therapist’s chair, and I’ve long been familiar with Grindr, which began the phone app hookup trend. The gizmo, which claims to have over five million users in 192 countries, posts pictures of available gay men by proximity, and if you feel like getting some, you connect. If you are in a metropolis like NYC, the guy is probably within a few hundred feet, so all you need to do is go around the corner, or to a different floor in your building, and without so much as a by-your-leave, you are doing it.
It strikes me that there is a difference between the way these apps are pitched, how they are used, and what the makers of the site want from them. Grindr says that it is a dating site, or a way to find friends or “buddies,” but clearly it is used for hooking up. Tinder promotes itself as a “fun way to connect with new and interesting people around you,” but the intent of its users seems to depend on things like age and gender. It’s horrible to make the generalization, and there are plenty of young women who are just looking for a good time, but it appears that typically, men are far more often looking for sex, and women for a relationship.
Whereas the old-fashioned dating sites, like match.com, promote themselves as tools to help “singles find the kind of relationship they are looking for,” the new apps don’t even pretend to be about helping to forge meaningful connection, offering to simply help you meet “real people.” As compared to what?
Though the users are looking for sex or love, for the makers of these apps, the goal is to get, and keep, users. For them, it’s all about the business model. That is, how is this going to make money? The start-up world is flooded with venture capital, and the investors are breathing down the necks of these companies to show a return on investment.
If the site operates on a subscription model, the dopamine dump needs to convert into getting the user to press the button that approves a credit card number. If the app attempts to make money through advertising, it’s about getting the user to return to the site over and over, so they will eventually press an advertiser’s link. If the purpose of these apps is to recruit return users, the worst thing they could do is help people get married, because if that happened, people would get off the damn thing. The best system is something that provides just enough reward, and just enough failure, to keep you coming back for more.
As it turns out, for the successful users of the gadget, what the app does isn’t about relationship or connection at all – rather, it is a way to get high. And if you’re getting high, you’re getting hooked, and that serves the purpose of the business folk. It turns out that whether we are talking about “meeting real people,” tracking your stocks, playing a multi-player game, watching internet porn, or even seeing how many people like your blog post, your smart phone is really a hand-held, easy-to-use, dopamine delivery system.
With everyone holding a drug delivery system in their hand, I begin to wonder how our brave new world of technology is affecting us. We all know that there is good and bad to the ubiquitous devices that now permeate our existences (see: the device I am typing this on right now.). In the case of a dating app, the good is that it breaks down the barriers to meeting people. It is not easy to walk up to a complete stranger and start a conversation at a bar, or anywhere else. The fear of rejection, and the humiliation that goes along with that, is a strong disincentive for many. An app like this virtually eliminates this problem. Now it’s easy to “approach” lots of people, and with so many possibilities, if you are young and decent looking, you can get enough positive responses to keep you buzzed. But who even knows what the down sides might be? Things are changing so rapidly that we have not had enough time to test for side effects before some new electronic drug starts flooding the market.
For instance, though these apps have made it easier to meet people, my clients are complaining about how hard it is to make substantial connections, whether for friendship or love. Bobby wonders if this dating app won’t lessen the number of people who have committed relationships. He says that the difficulties of meeting people made it more likely that people would settle down. After living through the agony of approaching members of your preferred sex, and the ignominy of enough rejections, if you finally found someone who was into you, you were more willing to accept that person’s limitations because that was preferable to the torture of the single life. But for the cool-enough set of guys and gals, getting in and out of relationship-ettes is so pain-free, and so dopamine-plus, that there is less and less reason to actually go through the difficulties of commitment. When there weren’t so many choices, falling in love was uncomplicated. With another fifty-thousand candidates to reject, why settle down with the girl next door?
Getting high is what happens for the people who succeed on these things. But what about the people who fail? Perhaps these apps will further bifurcate our society into winners and losers. If you are young and attractive, you’ll have lots of matches and be able to enjoy the playground of easy hookups and multiple micro-relationships. But if you are a bit older, and perhaps chubby, maybe you won’t be able to get any matches at all. When all members need to do to accept or reject a connection candidate is swipe or touch a screen, and you have thousands of options to choose from, it becomes all too easy to say no. When you are trolling through dozens of people a minute, there’s not much chance of meeting a wonderful person who just happens to be funny looking. It is not far-fetched to imagine that there will be a sizable group of people who will fail this dating app game completely. This will deepen their sense of inadequacy and feelings of depression. If you get too little reward, your brain gets depleted of happy chemicals, and that can lead to all sorts of problems.
Then, of course, if these electronic syringes lead to a chemical dependency, withdrawal symptoms will follow. If people try to get this technical monkey off their back, they will swing into all the pain that ending an addiction brings. Get ready for App Users Anonymous. (Yes, there is an app to fight apps addiction . . .)
If developers and marketers continue to invent relationship substitutes that provide better, more efficient, and easier systems for delivering highs, will this eventually lead to the death of love? If we are all going to be conditioned to crave the instant high, what is going to happen to that part of us that finds fulfillment in engaging in something that is filled with frustration, pain, and effort – that is, a committed, ongoing, lifelong relationship?
What, after all, are people really looking for when they use these apps? Are the marketers like the cruel drug dealer who gives you the first fix for free, promising an end to all your problems, only to get you hooked? Are these commercial enterprises using our deepest human needs for authentic, loving connection to promote something far more insidious? Isn’t this, in fact, just the latest iteration of what capitalism is built on, which is to sell you something to presumably satisfy an existential void which can’t possibly be filled by a product? And then, when the product doesn’t end the human dilemma, what new faute de mieux fix will we concoct to sucker someone out of their money next time?
Here’s what I know. Just about every person that comes into my office, sooner or later, after the party is over, wants true love more than anything else. And though our technological devices can, and do, enhance our lives in so many ways, they can never, and will never, give you that.