It probably won’t surprise anyone who’s ever used a dating app when I say that I did not enjoy my time on a dating app.
This past spring, I found myself freshly single and curious to check out my options. And in theory, dating sounds like fun — my other single friends always had dates lined up, a.k.a. set plans for the weekend that didn’t involve working or binge-watching The Great British Bake Off. (I know, I know. Get in line, boys!) So I downloaded Bumble and started swiping right. I began scheduling my own dates with zero pity for Future Me, who begrudgingly rolled off the couch and slapped on makeup and embarked on whatever dumb date Past Me had planned.
Let’s just say that none of them inspired me to work on a wedding-themed Pinterest board. First, there was the cute investment banker. Halfway through the date, he removed the bun from a slider and ate only the meat because he was cutting back on carbs. (My idea of cutting back on carbs is when the pizza is thin-crust.) Then there was the very nice lawyer for whom the sole descriptor I can think of is “very nice.” Another night, I enjoyed hanging out at a dive bar with an editor-by-day, kids’-soccer-coach-by-night. He didn’t feel similarly, apparently, and disappeared into the ether. And then there was the comedian who tried to split the check for coffee. I just paid for both. It’s coffee, dude.
In between the obvious duds, there were plenty of perfectly nice, perfectly normal guys who would’ve made great partners — just not for me. And according to new research, that’s to be expected: A new study in the journal Psychological Science concluded that even the most sophisticated dating-app algorithm is effectively useless when it comes to accurately predicting a romantic match.
For the study, participants answered more than 100 questions about their personality traits and preferences in a partner, then mingled with participants of the opposite sex in a series of four-minute speed dates. The subjects graded each interaction after it happened, noting both their level of interest in and sexual attraction to the person they’d met.
Meanwhile, the authors used an advanced algorithm to predict the outcomes of each pairing based on the participants’ initial questionnaires —and failed miserably. So miserably, in fact, that they couldn’t identify even a single pattern within the answers that would determine whether two people would hit it off. In other words, no preexisting data about romantic preferences could actually predict romantic desire. Likability, yes. But attraction? Not so much.
“We did find that we could predict people’s overall tendencies to desire and be desired,” says lead study author Samantha Joel, a psychology professor at the University of Utah. But desire aimed toward a specific person is a different story. Only the measures collected after the speed dates, like how smoothly the participant thought it had gone, could accurately predict attraction to the other person. “Desire for a specific person may be a product of the interaction itself — in other words, a specific shared experience between the two individuals that may not be predictable beforehand,” Joel explains.
Those compatibility questions on certain dating platforms still serve a purpose. In the study, the traits included the participants’ relationship goals (like whether they wanted a long-term versus short-term relationship), self-esteem, extraversion, and political views, while the preferences focused on the desire for qualities like intelligence, earning potential, similarities, and physical attractiveness. All of the above are essential for compatibility, which can serve as a sort of filter. “By narrowing one’s dating pool to compatible potential partners, a person may be able to increase the odds that when they do meet someone they click with, that relationship is more likely to thrive long-term,” Joel says. But you still need to click. And if you don’t feel a spark on the first date, it probably won’t be there on the second.
The value of dating apps, then, is that they basically provide you access to a pool of compatible and (presumably) available partners. They’ll send you the ocean, but will ultimately give no other leads on your fish.
There are obviously “success” stories of people meeting their significant others on Tinder, Bumble, OKCupid, Match, and the like. I probably didn’t date long enough for that to happen, because after a few months, I got back together with a guy I’d dated back in college. We actually first clicked eight years ago, when I sat down on my first day of poetry class and immediately began making eyes at him. The compatibility, though, has only just caught up.
I don’t know if an algorithm would’ve paired us up then. Clearly, it can only do so much. But whatever potential mate the algorithm spits out for you, just keep your expectations realistic. Because, as the research shows, there’s no such thing as love at first swipe.