Have we killed cupid?
Swipe. Match. Ghost. Digital dating has transformed the way we find love. But does it mean RIP for flirting? Read on
Dating and data are firmly entwined. But a new low-tech trend is on the way
A simple-enough phrase – until you need to use it.
It’s 9:30pm on a Saturday when I find myself elbow-to-elbow at the bar with a broad-shouldered man serving Fassbender vibes. He looks my way. So, I do what any self-respecting socially awkward millennial would do: I get out my phone. By the time I glance up from Tinder, he’s gone and I’m left alone with a nauseating one-liner from Adam, the deck-shoe-sporting, tiger-stroking “entrepreneur” I accidentally just Super Liked. This is dating circa 2018. A survey by dating app Happn found that one-third of respondents don’t know how to flirt – and it seems I’m no exception. Flirting should be one of the most basic tools I have at my disposal. If those tools have gone rusty, I want to know why. Has the digital landscape signalled the death of dating as we know it?
In pursuit of answers, I call Dr Helen Fisher, the pioneering biological anthropologist who led the first MRI study scanning the brains of lovers to decipher what really goes on in our heads when we fall for someone.
“The brain system for romantic love ... is close to the areas that drive hunger and thirst and, just like them, it’s a survival mechanism,” she explains. “Romantic drive enables you to focus your energy on one person and start mating. It’s a primal process that hasn’t changed for thousands of years.” She argues our hardware for finding love is deep, ancient and powerful. “There is no way we can kill it. Dating apps aren’t changing the mechanism. They’re a new way to do the old thing.”
I end our call reassured that digital dating hasn’t totally screwed with my ability to connect romantically. But things have changed: the landscape of dating is shifting and, with it, our behaviour. Enter Tinder – and the copycat swipe-to-like apps it’s inspired since launching in 2012. My pal Lizzy echoes what
I’m thinking: “I used to find it sweet when guys would come over to chat to me. But these days it seems creepy. I feel caught off-guard, as if my space has been invaded. We think apps have opened up all these new opportunities, but actually, they’ve created blockers in real life.”
Our disrupted dating landscape may not be diluting love when we find it, but I’m convinced it’s changed how we approach the search. I put this to Dr Anna Machin, evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford. “Modern dating is playing out at a distance and we’ve simply not evolved to meet a mate that way,” she says. You know that buzz you feel when an attractive face gives your swiping thumb a reason to pause? That’s a spurt of feelgood neurotransmitter dopamine. But it’s nothing compared with the chemical push that erupts in your body and brain when you find yourself in a room with the person. “You get a hit of two neurochemicals. First, oxytocin, which quietens the fear centre of the brain, making you less inhibited,” Machin says. “Then dopamine, which motivates you to actually walk across the room.” Not only is the Bumble-induced buzz less potent than its IRL equivalent, it’s also less useful. That’s down to something called histocompatibility. “This is how you unconsciously gauge how good a match someone is by assessing how different their genes are to yours, via a set of cell proteins called the major histocompatibility complex,” explain Machin. To sniff out someone’s potential as a mate, you need to get in front of them. “The more diverse your genes, the stronger the immune systems of your offspring will be and the more attractive that person will seem.”
So, you need to be face-to-face with a potential bae in order to be
“Hello, how are you?”
the highly attuned matchmaking machine your body wants you to be. And yet, we’re told that online dating platforms are based on science.
“You can’t whittle love down to an algorithm,” scoffs Machin. “Not least a similarity algorithm, which most of these apps use. Similarity is one of the poorest indicators of compatibility.” She goes on to critique the ‘box-ticking approach’ I know I’m guilty of. I swipe with my tick list front and centre in my mind. Good uni; pushing 6ft; left-of-centre politics; decent grammar... Spoiler alert: that’s not how love works.
PRESS TO RESTART
Swiping culture may be flawed, but it’s undoubtedly widened the pool, increasing your odds of finding a partner by 17 per cent, according to scientists at the University of Bath. Now, it’s estimated that one in seven people end up in relationships with someone they never would have met if it weren’t for dating apps. In this sense, could Tinder et al be (whisper it) good for dating?
Let me tell you a love story. Jane, 37, a marketing director, stumbled onto Tinder after a three-year relationship didn’t work out. Her expectations were low, then she saw Steve on Tinder. Fancied him. Swiped right. Matched. After a few messages, he asked her out for a drink. She knew straight away that she liked him. Three years later, they’re engaged and have a house, a cockapoo and a baby on the way. “Our paths never would have crossed otherwise,” she says.
Some apps broaden your choices by eliminating your box-ticking bias (think: more photos, fewer details), while also narrowing your pool by location. This is the sweet spot. “Less information can be helpful,” says Machin. “It allows you to instantly assess someone based on what you see. More like real life.”
Research suggests the average single person goes on just two dates a month. This worries Joanna Coles, author of Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital
World. “It’s all too easy to fall in love with a digital voice. You don’t get an accurate picture of them,” she says. Coles points to the work of cyber psychologist Mary Aiken, who argues that there are four people in a digital relationship: two flawed, unpredictable humans and two curated digital selves.
“Love isn’t some mystical force,” Fisher adds. “It’s a brain system. We know that the more you get to know someone, the more you like them.” And, no matter how strong your in-app banter, nothing is as enlivening – or as fun – as the real thing. I can’t suss out if someone’s right for me with one eye trained on Netflix and the other on Instagram Stories. Instead, I’ll be doing it on walks, over coffees and, yes, in bars – where I can let my highly attuned, ancient animal senses do their thing. Now, repeat after me: “Hello, how are you?”
OFF THE WALL
“HAVING A GOOD SWIPE?”