Lately, several trends have gotten me thinking about the end of the world: military escalation, global warming, nascent pandemics. And more pernicious than them all, dating apps. Y’know, like Hinder, Stumble and Cringe. If you think I’m kidding, you’d be only partially right. Because those innocent-looking swipey apps are far more destructive than you’d imagine. So I’m going give you 10 reasons to delete those apps right now. Your choice: save yourself from a world of pain, or it’s app-ocalypse now. Let’s see what we can do to save your corner of the world.
1. Apps are designed to make them profit, not make you happy
There’s just enough variety amongst the dating apps to distinguish themselves from each other. But in the end, they all have one thing in common: they are businesses. Number of dating apps that are a saintly charity devoted to finding you a perfect match: exactly zero.
And you don’t need an MBA to know that dating apps don’t make money when you leave their app. Let’s say you to come on our hypothetical app, Hinder. On day one, you get matched with a studmuffin who’s 100% absolutely perfect for you, with whom you proceed to trot off into the sunset and off the app. That would be great for you — but a disaster for Hinder. Why? Because they can’t make any more money off you (and Mr Perfect) when you’re both happy and gone! Their entire business model depends on keeping you on the platform for as long as possible.
This means that your goals and their goals are at odds with each other. Economists call this perverse incentives. It’s like hiring a lawyer to work on your case by the hour. While you want the case to end as quickly as possible, he gets paid more the longer the case goes. Will he have your best interests in mind, or his own?
In the case of the dating apps, it’s pretty clear: they have their own best interests in mind. So it only makes sense for Hinder and Stumble to show you the profiles of people who are okay-but-not-great matches for you. Basically, they’re in the business of hindering your ability to find a long-term partner.
Now if you’re looking for fling but not ring, then no problem — your incentives and Hinder’s are aligned. Go to town! Otherwise, know that their matching algorithms are optimized for making them a profit, not making you happy.
2. Ordering humans on an app just doesn’t seem right
Have you ordered anything online in the past month? Food? Books? Clothes? Shoes? The idea of searching for exactly what you want, finding it, ordering it, and having it magically appear at your doorstep is far too seductive to pass up. And unless you live under a rock, you have ordered something online in recent memory.
How about people? Have you ever ordered people online? Before you rail at me — omigod that’s like human trafficking SO wrong — isn’t that exactly what you’re doing when you’re on a dating app? Granted, you don’t always get what you thought you had ordered, like when people’s profile pics are from 10 years or 50 pounds ago. And sometimes the same-day delivery isn’t so reliable (except for Grindr, which I hear has same-minute delivery). But the process? Pretty much the same.
On the dating apps, the people are the products you’re selecting from. Now, I don’t know how romantic it sounds to you to turn the potential love of your life into a commodity like sneakers or spare phone chargers. But commoditizing people sounds like a terrible idea. Moreover, by being on the apps, you’re agreeing to turn yourself into a commodity, too. You, the supreme goddess of love, beauty, and joy, reduced to the status of compression socks and charging cables.
Consider this instead: refuse to commoditize other humans or let yourself be commoditized. Give yourself and others the dignity they deserve as the unprecedented miracles they are, and get off the damn apps. That way you can meet one another in natural human habitats — dinner parties, cafés, Zumba classes — and connect in a way that doesn’t turn you into glorified widgets.
3. Apps addict you with slot machine psychology
I recently read that users of Tinder, the original swipey app, spend 90 minutes a day swiping on it. 90 minutes! That’s enough time to read War and Peace, learn French, or take paddleboarding lessons. Apps can hook you for hours on end because they are designed like slot machines. As Prof Natasha Dow Schüll explains in her engaging book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, these gizmos use a technique called intermittent variable reinforcement to keep you addicted.
It basically works like this. For those of you reading this in a glorious future in which these apps have reached their well-deserved eternal demise and therefore have no idea what I’m talking about: you express your interest in someone by swiping right. You don’t match with everyone you swipe right on. But every once in a while, bing bing bing JACKPOT you get a match! Hallelujah! That’s when your brain gets a little hit of happy juice called dopamine, which is the same reward chemical you get when you do cocaine or heroin. Which keeps you going for the next fix. Which is why most of us get literally addicted to these apps, swiping on them for hours at a time. No wonder why drug addicts and app customers are both called users.
As your friendly neighborhood Happiness Doctor, I believe that the opposite of happiness is not depression. It’s compulsion, because it robs you of your will, depriving you of the freedom to spend your life as you choose. It’s like imprisonment, just without the chic orange jumpsuit.
I don’t want you to be captive to some app designed to make you its miserable slave. I want you to be happy. So delete the damn apps and get out there instead. That French paddleboarding instructor just might want to cuddle up and read War and Peace with you.
4. Apps kill civility
Ever noticed how people are just ruder online — including yourself? No need to feel guilty — it’s a universal issue. Online, a host of factors, including absence of face-to-face contact or accountability, bring out our worst selves (same is true when driving, incidentally).
And so people will easily dismiss someone online who could be a great match in person. Or match with you on the app, but not respond when you message. Or say something unbelievably crude. Or not call when they say they will. Or not show up to a date.
It’s one thing to deal with a single instance of incivility. But collectively, these little indignities add up and gradually age your soul. They could even make some people lose their faith in basic human decency. How much more of any of that do you need in your life?
The good news is that people tend to be much more civil in person. They say “hi” back. They will give you the time of day. If you look desperate enough, they may even point you to the bathroom. So instead of wading neck-deep into the swamp of disappointing behavior that is dating apps, you may want to go meet much nicer people in real life through friends and family.
Don’t get me wrong — the humans will still be disappointing. After all, it’s all the same earthlings. But at least this swamp will be just ankle-deep.
5. Apps hijack your drive state, turning you in to a zombie couch potato
Let me tell you a little more about this crazy little multitalented molecule called dopamine. One of dopamine’s duties is to serve as our main mental fuel driving us to seek survival goods, like food, shelter, and sex. Drive states are essential to our survival, both as an individual and a species. Any kind of addiction — drugs, video games, porn — can hijack these drive states. So now instead of going out foraging for food and seeking a suitable mate, you just stay home and play video games, smoke meth — or swipe on an app. Not good for you; not good for the species.
This is particularly pernicious because using the apps messes up your neurology to prevent the one thing you need to do to alleviate your singlehood: to get off the damn couch and go meet some eligible humans. So if after an hour of swiping on an app, you feel strangely depleted and unmotivated to go out, now you know why. Delete the app, and go get some sunshine (or moonshine) so someone has a chance to take a shine to you. Don’t do it for you; do it for the species.
6. Winners take all on the apps, leaving most people in the cold
When I was a kid, we once took in a stray cat, which we imaginatively called Kitty. Initially, we fed Kitty dry kibble, and he loved it. “This is great! So much better than being a hungry stray!” he would have said, if cats could talk. One day, I saw some TV ads for a cat food so fancy as to have the word in its name: Fancy Feast. The next day, I bought some Fancy Feast on my way back from school. Kitty devoured it with the glee of a child encountering brownies for the first time. Hell, Fancy Feast works!
Except for one problem: after we ran out of the Fancy Feast, Kitty refused to go back to the regular kibble. It wasn’t so much disdain as it was a complete refusal to acknowledge the kibble’s existence. “What, you want me to go back to that dry, flavorless stuff that comes out of a bag? What do you take me for, some kind of stray? Feh.”
Something similar happens when people get on dating apps. The app shows her Chad, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed 6’3″ former college athlete who’s making bank at an investment bank, and she thinks, “That’s what I’m talking about! Swipe right for Mr Right.”
This is fine, except for one problem: once you’ve seen Chad, normal Joes who are just 5’10” sub-zillionaires just ain’t going to cut it anymore. They have been reduced to the status of dry kibble, and you couldn’t possibly stoop that low. You ain’t no stray.
Congratulations — now you and Kitty have something in common. You both have Fancy Feast Syndrome (FFS). A core feature of human (and cat) neurology is that once you’ve seen a delectable dish like Chad, it’s hard to go back to sloppy Joe. This isn’t evil or wrong; it’s normal. But it does have a series of far-reaching consequences, none of which are good for your happiness or society.
First, because the likes of Chad are getting all the attention, all the regular guys are not. By some accounts, 90% of all matches are going to less than 10% of the guys. And according to studies, the match rate for guys on apps hovers somewhere around 0.5%. That’s 1 in 200. While normal Joe can barely score one date, Chad has to hire Scooter, a personal booty-call scheduler, just to service his 300 matches. This winner-take-all situation leaves most of the guys on apps frustrated and lonely (and Chad very tired).
Second, because it’s not just you who’s trying to match with Chad but also every other woman on the platform, he just may not have time for you. In fact, with his excess of choice, he’s got even worse Fancy Feast Syndrome than you. Anyone less than a supermodel just might not capture his attention. You and Chad could be a perfect match, destined to make beautiful genius babies together. But if you’re not his idea of Fancy Feast, you’ll never get the call from Scooter (Chad’s too busy to call, remember). So now most of the women on the platform are frustrated and lonely, too.
And third, because of the winner-take-all setup, you have prioritized inaccessible fantasy men while devaluing and neglecting all the normal Joes who could actually be a great match for you. If frustration and neglect isn’t your idea of fun, may I suggest that you delete the apps and instead meet real men in real contexts. They may just surprise you with character, kindness, consistency, reliability, resilience — qualities that may not always come through a shirtless Hinder thumbnail photo.
7. Apps prioritize bullshit criteria
The other day, I was at a party and this girl came up to me and asked, “Hey! How tall are you? How old are you? And what do you do for a living? And how long is your left pinkie?” Pretty jarring, if you ask me. I mean, who does that? The answer is nobody, because I just made that up. I mean, how weird would it be if those were the first questions someone asked?
And yet, that’s exactly the kind of information that the dating apps put up for everyone to see first: height, age, job. And so, whether we like it or not, those are the first criteria by which we judge potential app matches — even though we never do it in real life.
What happens as a result is what I call optimization for bullshit criteria. Even though things like height, age and job have no correlation with relationship satisfaction, we end up optimizing for them because, well, that’s what the apps show us. If they showed us left pinkie length, shoe size and kidney shape (I can just see the Cosmo article: “Boomerang or a bean? Know your type!”), then we’d end up optimizing for those. Which would be just as useless as the current data the apps choose to display.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Prof Samantha Joel and co studied a very large data set of couples (11,196 to be precise), looking for correlates of long-term relationship satisfaction. You know what didn’t end up mattering? Basically all the things people try to optimize for on apps:
- Religious affiliation
- Physical attractiveness
- Previous marital status
- Sexual tastes
- Similarity to oneself
What did matter, you ask? Intangibles that are hard to discern via an app, like kindness, resilience, and self-awareness. So if you don’t want to get waylaid by bullshit criteria, do this: delete the apps. Then meet people through friends and family, and select for the stuff that actually matters, like how well they treat you. Otherwise you just might end up with a guy with freakishly long pinkies and a boomerang kidney.
8. Apps dangerously shorten courtship time
Here’s an unusual fact about how my mom and dad got together. Before they ever met in person, they talked on the phone — for a whole freakin’ year. Totally not kidding here. After hundreds of phone calls often stretching into the wee hours of the morn, they finally made a real date, met, and found each other attractive enough to start going out, fall in love, and produce glorious offspring like yours truly. As of this writing, they’ve been married for three and a half centuries.
Contrast this with the current courtship paradigm on dating apps. Instead of getting a year to really get to know someone, people are dismissing or accepting mates in less time it takes to wipe a nose. Too short. Too poor. Too hairy. No sense of style. Hot, but the shirtless pics are too cheesy. Job’s too boring. Job’s too exciting. Has a cat. Actor. Drives a Camaro. Pass, pass, pass, pass, hard pass.
My point: it’s difficult to fully assess another human in the 500 milliseconds we’re giving them on the swipey apps. And how would you feel if someone only took half a second to evaluate your whole amazing, unprecedented existence? Would that be doing you justice — you, the complex, multidimensional, utterly magnificent creature? Hell no! Would take millennia if not eons to get to fully know you.
So why would you assume that everyone else on the app isn’t equally worth getting to know? Hmmm.
The best solution is to opt out of this shallow, low-attention span environment altogether and delete the damn apps. Slow the courtship process down. Behind the bullshit criteria that dating apps display may just be a person worth not just half a second of your time, but maybe even a whole lifetime.
9. Apps increase danger
One of the consequences of meeting guys off the internet is that most (if not all) of them will be total randos. They will have little to no connection to your network of friends and family. This is problematic because for the last few hundred thousand years, that’s exactly not how things worked. You met boys from your own tribe or the neighboring tribe — someone who was already embedded within some network of social trust.
Right up until the advent of online dating at the turn of the 20th century, that’s mostly how things worked. You met guys through a friend, work, school or family. As such, they had some kind of back-connection to your extended social network. Although this didn’t always guarantee impeccable behavior, it was a decent deterrent to guys being total jerks. Violating social norms carried heavy penalties.
You still could have met a rando at a bar or nightclub then, but that was the exception, not the rule — and one that carried a stigma. Couples who had met at a bar would only admit to it sheepishly, or change their origin story altogether.
Funnily enough, that’s initially how people treated online dating when it arose in the 1990s. I remember couples who met online inventing all kinds of stories to circumvent admitting it — “Umm, we met through a mutual friend.” Sure you did. First name Intern, last name Ett.
Now in the 2020s, meeting someone via a dating app seems to be superseding the in-person encounter. Which means meeting a lot more randos. Which means meeting a lot more potentially toxic randos with zero accountability for their behavior.
The problem is widespread. I don’t believe I’ve met a single woman who hasn’t had some kind of regrettable experience from online dating. It’s so bad that a whole new set of terminology around it has entered the vernacular: catfishing (misrepresenting yourself online to take advantage of people); doxxing (making private information public without permission); and revenge porn (making very private information public). Hell, they even made a (fictional) movie about it called Catfish in 2010, and a (real!) documentary called The Tinder Swindler in 2022.
If that’s not enough to scare you, then I encourage you to read Carrie Goldberg’s book Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Stalkers, Psychos, Pervs and Trolls. She’s a lawyer whose firm defends women who have had harmful dating experiences. Her book is a gripping (and harrowing) memoir as well as a safety guide. Goldberg tells tales of terrible things that toxic randos have done so they don’t happen to you. Nearly all of the stories have one thing in common: the ladies met these douchebags online.
If you think I’m being a little alarmist, you’re right. Because a little alarmist is not nearly enough! Ladies — your long-term well-being is at stake here. Some wise woman once said that the worst thing that can happen to a guy on a date is he gets laughed at. The worst thing that can happen to a woman is she gets killed. Truth! All it takes to ruin your life is one toxic, determined dickhead. Dating apps are the dark alleyway where these dickheads lurk, awaiting their next unwitting victim.
My suggestion: avoid the potential stalkers, psychos, pervs and trolls entirely by choosing not to walk in virtual dark alleyways (i.e. dating apps). Only meet people within your extended social network of friends, family, work, and school. Although things may still not work out, the experience is far less likely to endanger you. And at the very least, you’re not willfully walking into a dark alley where you’re liable to get mugged, literally and figuratively.
10. Apps make users miserable with an excess of false choice
When I moved to the US at age 13, one thing completely blew me away: American supermarkets. Such an avalanche of products on display! I was a huge cereal fan then, and just couldn’t believe the bounty on display before me: Cap’n Crunch! Count Chocula! Froot Loops! Trix! Lucky Charms! Cheerios! Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs!* I could have a different cereal every day of the month and not run out. It made me dizzy just standing in the aisle looking at the vast selection.
Not only has that not changed, but it has gotten much worse. And not just for cereals, but for almost everything (including dating). There is so much choice right now that it’s not unusual to see people standing in the supermarket aisle, too dazed to decide on a jam, kombucha or toilet paper because there’s umpteen zillion choices. Psychologists call this decision paralysis. Like most forms of paralysis, it’s not fun, and it’s one of the byproducts of having too many options.
But wait — it gets worse. In his outstanding 2009 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Prof Barry Schwartz tells us that when we try to pick the best possible choice (i.e. maximize) in a regime of excessive options, it makes every phase of decision-making unpleasant:
• Sorting through the choices is annoying and hard, especially when the choices (e.g. dating profiles) are similar.
• Picking one from amongst the multitude of choices is hard because you’re committing to one and forgoing the rest. How do you pick just one of your matches and leave the other 121 behind? So painful and wrong.
• Committing to one of the choices is tricky and annoying because how can you ever be sure you made the best choice? Surely #42 of the 121 you neglected must have been better than #44. You will live in the Land of Perpetual Buyer’s Remorse, which I hear has the slowest wi-fi, ever.
That sounds like a whole lot of self-inflicted terribleness. So how do we overcome our maximizing tendencies and the paradox of choice so we can have an outside chance at happiness? Three ideas:
- Voluntarily limit choice. The data is clear: less choice equals more happiness. So limit yourself to the people you can meet from your immediate social circle, instead of the thousands on the apps.
- Practice satisficing instead of maximizing. The great multidisciplinary super-genius Herbert Simon coined the term satisfice as a mashup of satisfy and suffice. It means, for example, that instead of reading the entire 1000-page Cheesecake Factory menu before deciding, you pick the first thing that sounds good enough, close the menu, and go with it: “I’ll have the grilled salmon, please.” Studies show that people who satisfice are much happier with their choices than those who maximize.
- Use the 37% criterion. If picking the first good-enough choice feels too much like settling to you, then you can go with this procedure borrowed from computer science. A true maximizer would go on a date with every single guy on an app before deciding on one. Instead of that self-imposed hell, you pre-decide the upper limit of dates you’re going to go on — say, 100. Then, you go on 37 dates without making a decision (that’s the 37% part), while making a mental note of the best guy you met in that batch (let’s call him Napoleon). After that, the first guy you meet who is as good as or better than Napoleon is your man. You pick him, close the menu and you’re done.
Taking up the satisficing habit may take a minute, especially if you’re a lifelong maximizer. But once you start doing it, this new way of dealing with the world opens up so much time and energy that you’ll never go back. Give it a try and delete your dating apps. And thanks for doing your part in preventing the appocalypse.
You did it! You just finished reading a 4000-word article! You ROCK! This was an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Five (Hidden) Love Questions. It’s a complement to my earlier book, The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible (paperback, ebook and audiobook), which was the highest-rated dating book on Amazon for 7 years and has been highlighted over a million times.
Would love to hear your thoughts about this excerpt! If you’d like to help me make the book better, click here to join my Editorial Board. You’ll get early access to the manuscript, an acknowledgment in the book, and other goodies you can help me dream up.