What Effect Can Dating Apps Have on the Brain?

    We all want to fall in love, right? Well, mobile dating apps are right there to help us with that purpose!

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    In BBC Three’s new series Planet Sex, model Cara Delevingne delved into what happens to our brains when we see images of people we find attractive. In one of the episodes, she herself came under scrutiny. Her brain was monitored as she was shown images of people she recognized, from acquaintances she found attractive to people she had long-term relationships with.

    Cara’s brain functions brightened more when images of her serious past loves appeared, and the results, said Dr. Bianca Acevedo, who led her brain scan, prove that “love is a really strong drive. Even when the couple’s relationship is not great at all, there is still a strong connection —you see intense reward activity in their brains”. “Love is basically a drug”, Cara agreed.

    It is no surprise then that dating apps, a technology that helps us find love, are so popular. In 2022, the year that the pioneering Tinder celebrated 10 years of existence, 323 million people around the world were using that and similar apps, according to a recent study.

    And it is that they are “incredibly addictive”, according to the psychologist and cultural consultant Zoe Mallett. “They give you the chance to meet people you might not otherwise meet”, she notes, but she adds that it is not all positive things. While they can help you find love, since there is so much screen time involved, “they can change the way you behave when you meet people in real life”, she says.

    They are based on intermittent reinforcement, something that Mallett defines as the “delivery of rewards at irregular intervals”. “Scientists associate it with gambling. It’s the addictive feeling of not always winning”, she details.

    That’s because if you find someone you are attracted to and choose them, there is no guarantee that the same thing will happen to that person; so when the match happens, the payoff feels bigger. “Uncertainty makes you more invested”, she explains, noting that even if you do not get any matches, you will want to ‘come back for more’. How do we feel when using them? “It is all about dopamine levels in your brain”, says the psychologist.

    Similar to how we use social media, dating service designers want you to come back again and again. “Both target your brain’s muscle memory, so it is the first thing you look for when you pick up your phone. Your brain will naturally go to a place that it knows can make you feel good”.

    And just like social media, dating apps are carefully designed to “blot you out from the rest of the world”. “They want you to have your glasses on when you use the app”, she says. Using carefully designed colors, fonts, and language, they also focus on your emotional side. “When you see someone you like on an app, you can start to imagine a future with them. It is not just about their appearance, but also about the narrative they can create”, she explains.

    Is it all about love?

    Humans are constantly looking for validation, Mallett says, and that’s what dating apps appeal to as well. “When you get a match on a dating app, for a brief second, all your self-doubt can disappear.” Also, the feeling of “the unknown” keeps users hooked. “You never know who is going to be next and that’s very exciting”.

    But can this emotion turn into love? According to a YouGov study, 16% of global consumers, aged 25-34, have met their partner through a mobile app.

    For the psychologist, winning that jackpot is the result of a mixture of “luck” and “effort”. “If you spend a lot of time looking for love on a dating app, you are more likely to actually find someone you like. But it is also a matter of luck. You may not like anyone in the area you live in”.

    Meeting face to face

    Social media and dating apps have also changed the way we communicate in real life, Mallett argues. “Our reliance on technology has meant that some people find it difficult to have a face-to-face conversation”, she says. “Now people may think that they do not need to expose themselves or get close to the people they see around, if, after all, they can go home and swipe, which is much less intimidating”.

    So is it good to use them?

    “Everything has good and bad parts”, Zoe considers. “If you want to get to know your partner, they are a great way to figure out what you may or may not want from them. They can also build your confidence, but I wouldn’t recommend relying on them as your only way to meet people”.

    Plus, she says, the way we use dating apps is starting to change. “Apps such as Bumble and Thursday have started hosting in-person events, which is very interesting because it takes users out of the app and into a real-life environment”.

    “(The creators of) the apps are realizing that we still want to meet people in real life”, says Zoe. But she thinks our obsession with them will not lessen. “Human beings naturally like things that make our lives easier. Dating apps give us a hand, they make our lives easier. They are a solution. It is hard to meet people; so it is no surprise we like them so much”, she concludes.

    Resonance Costa Rica
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