Love inside the dopamine machine

Tuesday, April 7, 2020 - 3:42pm

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Illustration by Christine Jegarl

There is nothing like a good romantic comedy to make you reevaluate your love life. Watching any movie with a boy-meets-girl plot results in what my mother calls an “I’m going to die fat, broke and alone” moment, as terrible as that sounds. It’s the kind of feeling that makes you want any semblance of validation immediately, especially from a potential romantic partner. 

In one of these moments during my freshman year of college, to the rolling credit music of “27 Dresses,” I downloaded Tinder. I imagine I’m not the only one of the dating app’s millions of active users who decided to take the plunge in a flash of self-pity, searching for the immediate embrace of dopamine from a mutual match, just a few leisurely swipes away. 

Soon, the late-night curiosity that drew me to temporarily try Tinder had transformed into swiping during a dull moment during class, browsing the app as a distraction from my homework, during parties I didn’t want to be at and, of course, while on the toilet. At first, I didn’t consider my fascination with Tinder to be related at all to my own actual romantic life. I thought of it more as a tool, one for a brief burst of dopamine in the form of an unexpected match. I looked at my participation in the online dating scene more as another source of digital entertainment and a self-esteem boost, rather than a realistic way to find a boyfriend.

But a few months later, I was on all the apps — Tinder, Bumble (which requires women to message first) and Hinge (which markets itself as a dating app that is “designed to be deleted”). Needless to say, none of them are truly a foil to the cons of the others. Instead, they offer different options to fulfill the same perpetual human need: the constant search for love, sex and everything that falls in between.

Before I came to college, I had a lot of knowledge about relationships but not much experience, having gone to an all-girls Catholic school for my entire secondary school education. I was very familiar with plaid skirts and where I could find discount Oxford shirts in the Walmart boys’ section, but had only gone on one date in my whole life, which went badly not because of my own inexperience but rather that of my date. I knew about the hookup culture on campuses like the University of Michigan’s, but assumed I would never be confident enough to partake, still working through my mix of ignorance and anxiety when it came to dating.

There were several contradictions mixed into this anxiety, too. I wasn’t Catholic and had no qualms about premarital sex, but growing up in that environment had stuck me in a state of arrested development. I knew I wanted to date, sure, but I wasn’t sure how to navigate that scene in any way, shape or form. It wasn’t like I was saving myself for Jesus — my parents had sent me to a private school that just so happened to be Catholic, but that still meant a life away from boys. Reading Cosmopolitan makes a 17-year-old girl feel well-versed in sex by herself, but when faced with the real thing, it was a different story altogether.

Once at U-M, the sheer number of romantic choices I had to make was overwhelming, with thousands of boys my own age swarming around me at parties, on the Diag, everywhere I went. People constantly talked about sex, about hooking up, about sloppy blacked-out flings and the excitement of meeting new people around every corner. For someone who hadn’t even had her first kiss yet, I was simultaneously exhilarated and terrified. I wasn’t the only one ― many other people I knew were having their first truly mature romantic experiences on dating apps, something that seemed to be the norm for my generation of young adults. 

The allure of these apps comes with how easy they make dating. With just their phone, a person is immediately able to access hundreds of people online that they might have never met in person, especially on a college campus. It’s a lot less daunting flipping through ready-made packages of people than trying to chat up someone in a bar. Thus comes the paradox of that ease: There are even people scrolling on dating apps while physically in a bar, so they are a lot more hesitant to engage when there are a million more options in the palm of their hand. When everyone has agreed to a silent transaction, even the people who have chosen to eschew Tinder for the old way are looked at funny when they try to chat someone up. It’s a whole new world. 

An advantage I saw in dating apps was the mutual understanding between me and the person I’d be messaging: If we were messaging, it meant we were attracted to each other, that we were both interested. There was no confusion in the intentions either I or a potential match had on the platform; all one had to do was look at my bio to see I was looking for a relationship. It took some of the terror out of the risk of putting yourself out there, as I still felt overwhelmed by the options and norms of college dating life, even after one brief and seemingly innocent tryst freshman year that didn’t lead anywhere. 

Two years later, I’m in love, actually in love for the first time in my entire life. It’s making me think a lot about why I never really fell before, why I ended up in love by surprise and not by searching for it. The cliche of never finding what you want until you’ve given up is true for me, at least. Maybe it’s in that choice, in the selectivity and apparent promise of these apps, that some of us set ourselves up for failure and some for success in love. Is there a secret recipe? Does the fact that we are often starting our adult love lives through these apps mean we will always approach love with something so specific in mind?

Beyond that, I wonder whether the paradigms set up by apps like these are changing the way we look at romance completely. We all select our partners judgmentally, as much as some people claim to transcend prejudices, whether it’s in person or on an app. It’s a biological imperative, especially for those in their reproductive prime: pretty, healthy, tall, skinny, strong, attractive people are immediately more appealing than the rest. But is that flurry of preferences somehow worsened by the ease of an app interface, where one rarely can show their personality? Is true love — as some people have posited in the wake of hookup culture’s moral panic — dead? Or has it just turned into a game?

The modern meet-cute looks very different than it used to — this time, it’s the wonder of getting texted consistently that spells love, not necessarily a collision walking down the sidewalk or hand touch over spilled papers. Trying to decode in real time whether or not an interaction in person is inherently romantic seems harder than before; I don’t think I would ever go off my instinct alone before asking someone out today, if I knew I could play it safe and learn more about that person’s intentions ahead of making my decision by Googling them or even taking a glance at their Instagram. Imagining the grand gestures of yesteryear — the boomboxes outside of windows and surprise appearances at airport gates — I feel legitimately uncomfortable. All I want from romance is a nice good-morning text and a coffee once in a while, really. It’s obvious that our idea of what is romantic has changed, but the need for romance hasn’t. Instead, it’s just gotten more complicated. 

Though attachment styles that are formed during childhood largely end up making a person more insecure or secure in their love lives, the ways in which we approach creating those attachments is rapidly changing. I can see it in the way people talk to each other in these coffee shops, on the streets, at parties and in my own circle of friends. The getting-to-know-you stage of dating has flipped from an incline to a parabola: Before even meeting a potential romantic partner or hookup, most of us have “talked” to them already, stalked their social media accounts, asked friends or at least Googled them. 

Thus, we go into the first date with the information about the person that is usually exchanged as you get to know someone. After the appropriate amount of time has passed to break through the wall of self-marketing that many of us put up for these apps, then, maybe we can get to something deeper than purely physical or intellectual attraction. 

These apps become addictive through an erratic matching system that provides hits of the feel-good hormone dopamine in knowing someone finds you immediately attractive. 

The fact that these systems exist and are so widespread seems like a perfect opportunity for psychological research on our generation, dating and media. To get a better idea of how much the combination of self-marketing, selection and opportunity that dating apps offer is potentially changing our perception of love, I sought out University professors who were asking the same questions as me in their research.

But what I found, at least initially, was discouraging. People have only been using apps like Tinder and Bumble — which have been active on the App Store since 2012 and 2014, respectively — for less than 10 years, so psychologists and sociologists don’t have much data to work with. Moreover, due to the personal nature of these apps, they have nearly impenetrable data firewalls, to the point that most researchers have to build a lookalike tester app to use on their subjects. 

The lack of long-term data on dating apps and human behavior poses a unique problem, as we don’t know how these apps are affecting the present, but also how they will affect the romantic lives of users in the future.

However, dating services like eHarmony and Match.com have been using algorithms and selection mechanisms similar to the ones used by Tinder and other dating apps for a long time, and researchers know much more about them, especially because their software developers modeled their systems off of data from long-lasting relationships. When I read the studies around these models, one researcher’s name kept popping up again and again: Dr. Bill Chopik, an assistant professor of Social/Personality Psychology at Michigan State University and a visiting scholar here are U-M. I was happy to find out that he was currently working in Ann Arbor.

The winter wind biting my face, I walked to the psychology department on campus and found myself pushed into the maze that is East Hall. It almost felt like I was inside a giant brain. After 10 minutes of wandering the grey-carpeted corridors of the department, Dr. Chopik came to retrieve me from the depths of the hallways. Questions were whizzing through my brain already. Relieved to finally be walking with direction, I followed Chopik to his office. “Ready to talk about Tinder?” I asked. He nodded, laughing.  

Chopik is no stranger to research on what makes love actually tick. He has done several studies on how couples who have been together for decades have lasted throughout the many changes in life, trying to crack open the secrets to a good relationship by working backwards. 

“I tell people I study how relationships and the people in them change over time,” he explained. “Basically, I'm most interested in what makes people happy and healthy.” He settled in his seat, the snow falling leisurely outside the office window. 

Chopik has been interviewed many times before on this same topic, as people grapple to find meaning in this new age of dating. No one really knows how a technology will eventually affect the way we approach and act in relationships, and that’s scary.

But that change, Chopik said, might not necessarily be a bad thing. 

“So there’s a bunch of people who will look at college students today. And they have this moral panic about how they’re on their phones. They’re zombies. They’re out of touch,” Chopik laughed. “You know, totally unengaged with the world. And I don’t think that's entirely accurate. I think young people are engaged in all sorts of things. And they’re reflecting on the role of technology and relationships. And so the same question you just had, I’m sure a lot of your friends think about too.” 

Indeed, when I told my roommates I was planning on writing about Tinder, they all told me the same thing: We’re all interested to see how this affects us in the long run.

“I will also say that a lot of people have that mentality (of going into relationships casually) when they’re young; people maybe 20 years ago also had that mentality. A lot of college students think that way and they’re at an exciting time in life, or they might not be sure where they're going to be in two years,” Chopik explained. 

Listening to him talk, I was reminded of stories my parents had told me about their various partners throughout college. Though they hadn’t met their lovers online, they had still had the youthful impulse to make spur-of-the-moment romantic decisions, to meet new people, to explore. It wasn’t as streamlined as with an app, but it still existed. Putting a young person in a vacuum doesn’t take away the fact that they’re young in the first place, Dr. Chopik argued. 

I’ve made some of my best friends through technology, keep up with ones who’ve moved away via social media and despite the stigma of it all, dating apps did, in a way, make me feel better about myself. Though I was never successful in finding a long-term partner through Tinder, matching and chatting with people on apps offered a boost in my self-esteem and a path to practice romantic interaction when I was barely competent at the beginning of college. 

I believe that the changes in how we form attachments based on technology would have happened anyway, even without dating apps. Even standard social media can serve as a dating app these days, with Tinder and Bumble giving the option to integrate your other social media accounts into your profile. As long as there is an option to connect with other people, through direct messages, comments and likes, people will find a way to make those connections romantically or sexually suggestive, if not direct.

In Chopik’s words, “technology often mimics society, not necessarily the other way around.” 

***

When I first thought about writing on the realities of dating apps in the love lives of young people, specifically about how much of a game dating has become, I immediately thought of an article in Vanity Fair, where reporter Nancy Jo Sales scoured a Manhattan bar and a few college campuses for the first signs of change in the dating scene due to the rise in apps like Tinder. I remembered reading articles on dating apps like hers, feeling like they were windows into another world, one where I wasn’t stuck in my polyester plaid with 30 other girls in a chapel five times a week. 

Rereading the article now, on sad, printed-out computer paper, I still find myself gasping at most of what her interviewees said about their respective love lives and the ways that apps like Tinder had both helped and hurt them. To put it in the words of one of the interviewed women, the piece would make any reader think that our era could easily be christened as the “Dating Apocalypse.” 

Or, to put it in the words of one of the interviewed males, a young musician: “‘I would just be sitting at home and playing guitar, now it’s ba-ding’ — he makes the chirpy alert sound of a Tinder match — ‘and …’ He pauses, as if disgusted. ‘… I’m fucking.’”

In the years since that piece came out, Sales has been hard at work cracking open quotes like these, trying to get inside the minds of those behind the new age of dating. All of this went into a particularly interesting HBO documentary last year, cleverly entitled “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.” While watching the documentary, I was slack-jawed in the same way that the article had made me, simultaneously in awe of not only how the apps were used, but how they were designed. 

In a podcast interview with Vox, Sales discussed the careful construction of the apps, how they suck us in and what this means for us.

“You swipe, you might get a match, you might not. And then you’re just, like, excited to play the game,” Sales said. “We’ve become products ... We are providing valuable data on a pretty consistent basis to people who are making money off of us. We’re laborers, in a sense, to people who don’t really care whether or not we fall in love or get married or whatever.”

As I closed the podcast on my computer, Sales’ words still echoing in my skull, I whipped out my phone and re-downloaded the Tinder app, just to see my old profile. My bio welcomed me like an old friend: There were the same photos I had remembered, the same links to my Spotify and Instagram, the same coy caption: If you can name all 5 members of Fleetwood Mac, you’re in the right place. Writer, musician, addicted to VICE documentaries on YouTube. I physically cringed at that last line. The same photo that’s my profile picture on all my social media stared me in the face, and I swiped through the rest of the photos, slightly proud of the seeming perfection of the bio. I used to call this profile my “masterpiece,” and for good reason. Even if it never got me a boyfriend, it definitely hit the spot to get me some attention.

Still, it felt gross to be back in the interface, looking at my old messages like an elderly lady reading her diary entries from childhood. Even if my heart was never really in the bad dates I went on, the apps still had their time with me and did whatever they were going to do to my mindset.

No matter what you do, there is no way that the culture around dating apps doesn’t touch you. But will the supremacy of dating apps last, and how will they fare in the long run? As Sales said, we’re the guinea pigs here. We’re the first generation to do romance online, whether it’s through apps specifically for dating or not. 

What is that actually doing to the way we form relationships? It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, to some extent — what we believe about these channels of connection seems to come true in our own lives, just because of the way we interact with them. But if this is true, is there some secret way to get what you actually want out of them? Or will they stain our romantic histories like spilled tea, a momentary mistake or attraction that seems to influence the rest of our connections? 

I look at my partner sometimes and wonder, what if this hadn’t happened? What if I didn’t fall in love with you? I think that is what makes the long-term questions of what these apps mean for our generation so hard to answer, because the answer is only a collection of these questions themselves, a collection of instances where we look at our lives and think about the choices we have made. Falling in love is easy, but getting there is hard. Even if it seems to be just beyond one swipe. 

Clara Scott is a junior studying English in LSA and Creative Writing & Literature in the RC. She is a Daily Arts Writer and can be reached at clascott@umich.edu.