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

Women's Health Australia - - CONTENT - By Roisin Dervish-o’kane

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.


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?”



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