Nov 19, 2018

Dating services are feeding loneliness


uring the secondary research phase I investigated over a hundred scientific publications covering a wide range of research, including psychometrics, dating and first acquaintance. What I’ve found alarmed me .My conclusion is that dating Apps are not only missing the chance to help fight the loneliness epidemic; they are feeding it. This conclusion is backed by scientific experiments on dating, commitment, and acquaintance that took place over the last five decades. It is also informed by over 20 user interviews I’ve conducted myself, a quantitative survey with five hundred respondents and the cultural probe research detailed here.

There are many different ways to look at how this is happening. Here, for the sake of simplification, I will focus on one of the main instruments used to measurement commitment and the quality of relationships: the Investment model.

  • Dating Apps feed into the premises that cause loneliness.
  • They do it by breaking two out of the three main drivers of commitment.
  • Scientific studies showed men tends to commit less, and to report having more options while women tends to commit more and perceive having fewer options.
  • Dating Apps that use the same appearance-driven UI for friendship feeds into a known social bias that helps physically attractive people rack up more friends.
  • None of the statements above are my opinions. They are conclusions of extensive scientific research conducted and published over the last decades, some experiments spanning 15 years.

How dating apps are feeding the loneliness epidemic

There are many reasons to believe the dating App landscape has been, for a while now, contributing to the loneliness epidemic. When it comes to feeling less lonely, when that's the goal, dating Apps are setting up users for failure from the get-go. There is strong empirical evidence of this fact. All you have to do is to ask people around. Ask if they feel less lonely after some time using Tinder or other dating services. You will be surprised how many people will actually report the opposite, that they feel lonelier and less hopeful of finding a partner.

However, let me set something straight first; this post is not about feelings or opinions. I focus here on a scientific instrument and experiments surrounding it.

Measuring commitment: The investment model scale

Rusbult’s (1980, 1983) Investment Model offers a lens that helps us better predict future commitment. This instrument is important as it has been able to predict whether or not couples remain together in studies ranging from 7 to 18 months (Impett, Beals, & Peplau, 2001; Rusbult, 1983), and even 15 years (Bui, Peplau, & Hill, 1996). The investment model is composed by three main drivers of commitment: 

  1. Satisfaction
    Measures how satisfied people are with their relationship.  (Rusbult et al., 1998, p. 359)
  2. Investment size
    Refers to the magnitude and importance of the resources that are attached to a relationship. These can be both tangible and intangible resources. Its an assessment of how life would be if people lost things they shared with their partners like secrets, identity, physical assets, common friends, family, dreams and plans for the future.
  3. Quality of alternatives
    Measures the perception of the alternatives available. How easy it would be to replace the current relationship for one with equal or higher quality.

Looking at the Investment Model instrument, its not rocket science, I mean, it makes sense that these constructs are synonym with commitment. However, the investment model scale shouldn’t be taken for a simple hunch or some silliness like the Myer Briggs personality scale. The investment model is a scientific-proven instrument to gauge commitment. The model has been scrutinized and proved valid every single time for over the last forty years. It has been tested in comprehensive experiments, some spanned over 15 years to see if people remained commited to each other.  (Bui et al., 1996) 

About the quality of alternatives on dating apps 

The first thing dating App users look forward to when choosing a dating service is the size and quality of the inventory it provides. This means people will switch services until they find an inventory they are satisfied with, one that provides them with better quality choices. As such, it is in the best interest of services like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and other dating services to be constantly looking for ways to increase inventory size and quality to keep their subscribers happy. 

“Sometimes I think of switching from Tinder to a less aggressive App, the problem is most don’t have inventory in my area.”

(Interviewed user, male, 27 years old)

Investment size on dating apps

In order to talk about investment we have to go beyond Tinder, Bumble and all other instant match services, as these set people up for zero investment size.

“You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”


Let’s pick Coffee Meets Bagel instead. This is an example of a service that tries to slow down the process, creating a little more space for people to consider a higher level of investment on their current dating option. They do this by providing users with only one date partner per week. It is correct to assume that this is enough to at least spark a reflexion, as users face the prospect of only having another option on the upcoming week. However, this is still far from the level of emotional investment found when meeting a partner through mutual friends. In this scenario people tend to try harder to make things work. Trying, that speaks for investment size. How much trying dating service users are willing to put make things work? 

Looking at the current dynamics on most dating apps the answer is: not a lot. 

“When it comes to hooking up, it’s not as simple as just having sex. It’s such a game, and you have to always be doing everything right, and if not, you risk losing whoever you’re hooking up with, and doing everything right means not texting back too soon; never double texting; liking the right amount of his stuff on social media.”


“The thing is, you can’t help but think… should I invest more into this one or will I be able to do better next week?”

(Interviewed user, female, 29 years old)

Differences between men and women. 

According to the study conducted to prove the investment model as a viable instrument to predict commitment, every time there were differences in the reported data between couples, women reported higher satisfaction, perception of poorer alternatives and greater investment to their relationship.(Rusbult, et al., pg 380, 1998). In the empirical world I've also found strong evidence and self-reported data that supports the idea that in the swipe casino realm, men ends up having the advantage. Take Vanity Fair's "Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse" article as a reference (

“What percentage of boys now do you think are fuckboys?,” I asked some young women from New Albany, Indiana.
“One hundred percent,” said Meredith, 20, a sophomore at Bellarmine University in Louisville.


Making friends in the photo swiping realm

Lastly, some dating Apps are trying to make a dent on the loneliness epidemic by offering friend’s match-making services.

Take as an example Bumble's BFF.  It uses the same card swiping, attractiviness-driven interface people use to find dates, but it segments the inventory to users sharing the same intention, to make friends.

The misconception behind the idea of making friends by focusing on physical appearance runs deeper than the obvious “you can’t choose friends because they look nice”. 

The problem is, to give people the option to choose friends by focusing on physical appearance first feeds into a well know and scientifically proven bias: The strong positive correlation between attractiveness and the perception of social trust.

During experiments on first-acquaintance, researches found attractive people to be considered more socially desirable than physically unattractive people. (Dion et al., 1972). Physically attractive people were perceived as more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled than physically unattractive people (Feingold, Alan., 1992).

This is, when people have never met before, they tend to bet beautiful people to be "nicer". A strong correlation was also found between attractive people and the perception of extraversion. Without having had any prior interaction, people reported physically attractive people to be more extraverted (Linda Albright, David A. Kenny, and Thomas E. MaUoy ). 

Useless to say this does not mean beautiful people are better (or worse) friends. But it definitely means physically attractive people are normally able to rack up more friends, and studies also point to the fact attractive people report being less lonely (Feingold, Alan., 1992).


A romantic partner is becoming more difficult, not easier, to find; as dating services grow exposing inventories and amplifying the idea of infinite choices.

As for a friend, as most friend's match-making Apps available today use the same appearance-first UI, we keep just feeding into our native descriminatory bias. The resultant dataset is definitely not a reflection of where we should be heading as society, but a reinforcement of where we have been for over the past decades.

Keep in mind thats the training data being constantly fed into machine learning matchmaking models. How’s that for feeding into the loneliness epidemic?