The psychology of swiping

Maybe you’re on it after a bad breakup. Maybe you’re on it to pass the time during your long bus ride. Maybe you’re on it to genuinely look for someone to make a meaningful connection with (in which case, maybe you should try Plenty of Fish instead). No matter the reason, there’s a good chance that you are one of the 19 million college-aged Tinder users.

The infamous dating app, where you swipe left or right on profiles to either try and match with them or reject them, has gained a reputation for being a place for people to seek out hookups and casual sex — as well as a net worth in the billions. Gone are the days of hanging out at the bar, setting your sights on someone and wooing them with your superior flirting techniques. Or are they?

Tinder has the reputation for being “the hookup app,” but what does it actually do for us in terms of building human connections? What does it mean for the way that people interact and judge one another when they go back to real life?

Swiping right (i.e. the good stuff)

According to UBC professor of philosophy Dr. Carrie Jenkins, our expectations about love — especially ones that are socially constructed — have evolved since the advent of online dating.

“If you just rely on walking into a bar and hoping to meet someone, the chances of meeting someone who wants the same kind of relationship as you, [especially] if you want anything at all that’s not the ‘normative standard,’ is quite small,” she said.

The “script” for prescribed relationships changes as more people gain the power to decide what kinds of relationships they want to be in — they no longer have to be monogamous, have an expectation of leading to marriage, or heterosexual. The power to “filter” through the kinds of people you would be interested in seeing is made possible through Tinder, noted Jenkins.

This concept of a new “script” applies to the way that relationships pan out as well, said UBC sociology professor Dr. Yue Qian. She cited a study done by an American scholar, who found that it was not the case that young people are currently only hooking up instead of getting into romantic relationships. Rather, the way that romantic relationships come about are now different.

“Think about courtship in the old days. Two people go to dinner, see a movie, they try it out through dates, and then they define a serious relationship and continue dating,” said Qian.

“Nowadays, relationships start in the bed and then they decide whether they want to have shared events outside of the bed. The sequence of events has changed a bit — maybe with the help of online dating.”

Swiping left (i.e. the not-so-good stuff)

This new-age dating method, in many ways, isn’t very new-age at all. In fact, Qian said that it is only the technology that is recent, and that traditional dating dynamics are still prevalent.

“For example, in the US, research has shown that when they ask online daters to rate online dating profiles, they find that highly educated men have higher rating scores than highly educated women. So being educated is a much more preferable attribute for men than for women.” It seems then that while there is new technology to facilitate new kinds of relationships, the way that people use them still trends towards traditional preferences.

Despite Tinder’s popularity and the large number of people using the app, there is still a degree of stigma around it. One student said that he and his current girlfriend met through Tinder, but they both tell their parents they met at a party or through mutual friends because he knows they wouldn’t understand.

But even among young people, there is a certain aspect of negativity surrounding online dating.

“[My friend] said that he didn’t like how it was basically the same thing as walking through a club at the end of the night when the lights go on, trying to find someone to bang. But you’re not drunk, you’re actually just online,” said Jemma, a third-year psychology major.

“There’s something to be said about something that’s so physical, and then transforming the entrance into that physical world in a way that has absolutely nothing physical. It just seems like two extremes bashing together, which doesn’t work for me.”

Swiping fast

The signature swiping motion of Tinder allows users to go through many people within seconds, often making a snap judgement based on just a single picture.

“These kinds of apps can reinforce stereotypes towards certain groups,” said Qian.

For example, Qian cited the difference between Asian men and women on the dating market. Asian men are often stereotyped as the least preferable racial group, while Asian women are often fetishized as one of the most preferable. What this means for online dating is that there is a very clear mechanism and filter in place for people to be selective about the race of potential mates.

“When we look at the profile pictures on an app like Tinder, what do we identify first? Race,” said Qian. “Without the intention of even trying to get to know that person, we are more likely to make rash decisions about who they’re interested in based on longstanding stereotypes, especially about race.”

The quick, surface level interactions of the app were off-putting to Jemma, who deleted it after three days.

“I think going into it, you can’t really expect it to work if you want more than [surface level interaction] or if you value more than that because you’re going into a platform where it’s so appearance-based,” she said.

On the other hand, the split second hot-or-not decisions we make about people aren’t necessarily restricted to the online realm.

“We make instant snap judgements about people within the first few seconds of looking at them. In some ways, Tinder is really just mirroring a thing that happens in the offline world as well,” said Jenkins.

“Even people who swipe quickly, I don’t necessarily think they’re doing anything particularly different from what we do in real life when we meet new people. But they’re doing more of it because they’re being presented with more options.”

Swiping smart

The long and the short of online dating, hooking up and relationships is to think critically about the social construction of what love and dating looks like.

Hookup culture, for example, may not actually be as new of a concept as it’s generally perceived to be.

“With the rise of social media in general, we see things now that we didn’t notice at first because we just weren’t able to and [it] was so filtered out due to a lack of communication, at least at that level,” said David Pashinsky, a first-year forestry student.

“I think hookup culture’s always been there, but it just hadn’t had a way to manifest itself until now.”

With Tinder and romance in the era of technology, Jenkins urges people in general, but especially students, to be mindful of misconceptions and misinformation. The idea that everyone is on Tinder hooking up with people can in fact perpetuate a kind of pressure on people to do just that, or risk being seen as “weird.”

“It’s important to ask questions like, ‘Hang on, where did that pressure come from? How does it interact with what I really want from my life right now?’ That’s a question where the answer’s going to be different for everybody, even if the pressure is the same,” she said.

“You have to think about all of this really hard and you have to think about it for yourself because no one else is going to do what you need to do.”

Jemma's last name has been redacted retroactively, as per our Unpublishing and Anonymity Policies.