Psych, Jokes, & Rock ‘n’ Roll: Unpacking the success of Tinder

slotmachineloveTinder? I barely know her. If you have not yet downloaded the app, you’ve probably seen its (omnipresent) ads. Perhaps you’ve even seen how two of our writers have enjoyed their own Tinder experiences. This remarkably addictive smartphone application has seen a meteoric spike in popularity on campuses all over the nation. Why? Before answering this question, you should first have a basic understanding of how Tinder works.

Now let us unpack the main components of Tinder’s success:

Effortlessness. Given a goal (e.g., become less lonely), humans naturally prefer the option that entails the least amount of effort, all else being equal. In psychology, this is known as the principle of least effort. Swiping through potential matches may cause serious thumb cramps, but it also has the potential of landing you a date (or better). From an economic standpoint, Tinder’s potential benefits greatly outweigh its costs, which are essentially nonexistent. Why talk to potential mates in the flesh—which can be socially costly—when you can do the same from your iPhone on the balcony of Salomon? Why converse with someone who might not like you when Tinder guarantees that all conversations are among interested parties? Much of Tinder’s success can be attributed to this effortless, simple design.*

Reinforcement. Basic psychology tells us that when one is rewarded for an action or behavior repeatedly, he/she is more likely to continue to engage in that behavior. (Has your booty call ever given you baked treats after sex?) Psychologist B.F. Skinner showed this principle 50 years ago using pigeons that would peck a screen to receive a reward. One major finding was, in order to increase the target behavior (i.e., pecking) most effectively, rewards should be given on a variable ratio schedule, where the number of responses necessary to produce reinforcement varies from trial to trial (think: slot machines). Tinder utilizes this kind of reinforcement; people get a reward—a match with potential mate—after a certain number of swipes (“likes”) and this number constantly changes. Every time you open Tinder, you are essentially pulling the lever of a hook-up slot machine (or spinning the wheel of romance roulette). At some unconscious level, your Tindering behavior is being reinforced by the variable pattern of rewards (i.e., matches) you receive.

I have now identified and explained the two major factors that I believe drive Tinder’s success—namely, its effortlessness (in execution) and positive reinforcement mechanisms. Obviously there are other factors that contribute to the popularity of Tinder (e.g. its interactivity, its thriving marketing campaign), but these two elements seem to be most responsible for both attracting people to the app and keeping them on it.

So what’s the moral of the story? That Tindering could possibly lift you from your lonely dry spell (with little effort involved) but, be careful, because it’s addictive and leaves out many crucial steps of the usual courting process.

*Note: I personally do not condone virtual interactions over real ones. Real conversations are peppered with dozens of meaningful social cues and subtleties that are lost in the faceless realm of online messaging. However, from an effort-centered view, Tinder seems like a good bargain in that it requires little to no effort to use but has the potential for high reward.

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