Week 8 | Dating Apps Don’t Work: The Science Behind Why Dating and Relationships These Days Are Brok
I once lived with a girl, we will call her Cindy. She was possessed by dating apps, constantly and obsessively on the hunt for a partner in life. I don’t blame her. I read a great book, The Lonely City, and the author Olivia Laing explained it best:
“The midpoint of my 30s, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.”
At the peak of her desperation to not be labeled an old maid at the elderly age of 32, Cindy one Saturday booked 3 dates in less than 12 hours! While I slothfully became one with my couch, binging on books and Netflix documentaries, Cindy every few hours would burst in and out of the front door in haste and in order to make her next encounter on time. My physical effort that day amounted to nothing, but collecting soiled delivery food paper bags by the foot of the couch - but by the end of the day I felt exhausted! Eyewitness to Cindy in and out and pulling herself together to meet yet another stranger she met through her numerous dating apps, took a lot out of me.
That day, I was front row to the all too characteristic palpable distress that is trying to find a mate these days. At least within my cohort and network of accomplished, intelligent, well put together women and men, finding meaningful connection and union with another is rare. Something is wrong with the way we are dating one another.
But why? Especially with the genesis of apps and online dating, we have before us a plethora of potential partners to choose from! I mean, where else are we supposed to meet our alive, breathing, walking to the park on a sunny day with his dog and thus so should you, future husbands, if not from the isolated caves of our bedrooms, hunched and flipping through artificially curated stills from our cold, glaring digital devices? While I don’t know where you, let alone where I, will one day meet my husband - may he please come someday soon - here is why I think digital dating and mindlessly racking up as many dinners in a week with another is a failed pursuit, terrible for our culture and actually quite damaging to mental health and well being.
The Paradox of Choice
In 2004, psychologist Barry Schwartz, accompanied with a Ted Talk and scientific studies to support, published his book, The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz lays out his argument that having choice leads to certain freedoms, but having too many choices is paralyzing, prone to induce anxiety, regret and constant dissatisfaction with your current state - all these things, not good for the human condition.
The idea of having choice is one of the most basic foundations of western industrial societies; The west’s, “official dogma”, Schwartz explains in his Ted Talk, “runs like this: if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom”. Freedom is good and essential to human beings - it leads to greater welfare; “the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice”. With the ability to choose from a selection of options, western thought urges that a greater state of well-being will follow. Schwartz goes on to give an example that at his supermarket he has at least 175 salad dressings to choose from - so many choices allow him a freedom to pick and thus become happy...right?
Wrong. While having some choice is good, Schwartz explains that our culture has evolved to allow for too many choices; “There is some magical amount I don’t know what it is, I am pretty confident that we have long since past the point where more options improve our welfare”. Call it consumerism, in more places than salad dressing, we have experienced an “explosion” of choices originally stemming from the understandable and inherent idea within our culture that choice leads to freedom and greater welfare. “There is no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from there that more choice is better than some choice”, Schwartz argues. In fact, all of this choice in for example having access to 175 salad dressings, is having a negative effect on us.
The Negative Effects of Having Too Much Choice
While there is obvious good that comes from having some options, Schwartz describes the not so obvious negative effects of having too many choices; “All of this choice has negative effects on people. One effect paradoxically is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from. people find it very difficult to choose at all...
The second effect is that even if we, "overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice”, because we are constantly thinking about and comparing what is right in front of us with that which we did not pick.
Further, having so many choices, ups our expectations: “When [something] comes in one hundred flavors, [darn it] one of them should have been perfect”, Schwartz explains. What we often choose is in comparison to what we expect, and what we expect from a field of so much choice is that somewhere hiding in the tall grass is a most perfect option. More often than not, what we choose even if it is good will not be good enough when we compare it to the illusion that there are other choices out there that could be better. We are thus prone to inhabit a constant state of disappointment and dissatisfaction - removed from the present, only allowing our minds to drift to some imagined holy grail alternative, even if what is in front of us is a glaringly great option; “The way in which we value things depends on what we compare them to. When there are a lot of options to consider it is easy to imagine the attractive features of the alternatives that you rejected….[this] subtracts from the satisfaction we get out of what we choose even when what we choose is terrific”, explains Schwartz.
Having Too Much Choice: The Effects On Our Well-Being
Having so many choices is wearing on our mental health. “Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation...a significant contributor to this explosion of depression and also suicide is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high”, Schwartz explains. Another reason for the rise in sadden states is, “when there is only one kind [of something]...when you are dissatisfied and you want to ask, who is responsible? The answer is clear, the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles available and you buy one that is disappointing and you ask who is responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is, you. You could have done better with one hundred different kinds of jeans on display. There is no excuse for failure and so when people make decisions and even [when] the results of the decisions are good they feel disappointed about them, they blame themselves”. Enter depression.
Why Dating Sucks Nowadays: There is Too Much To Choose From
You can easily apply Schwartz’s theory to our current dating environment. What are these dating apps but a window to millions of other singles in your city. We have experienced a burgeoning of choice when it comes to picking a mate. Before you had limited choice - maybe it was your friend’s cousin who lives 2 blocks away or your co-worker’s brother or maybe the girl you met at your neighborhood coffee shop. Back in the day your network was infinitely smaller than what a dating app allows for today which is basically a window to the world.
When it comes to picking a mate via a digital device there is just too much choice. Applying Schwartz paradox of choice theory here, we are thus induced to inhabit a state of paralysis, losing our drive to pick anything at all: because I can just go home and swipe through men until 2am, why and how am I supposed to pick just one?
We are prone to recurrent states of disappointment, dissatisfaction, regret and sadness: Michael loves Sally, they have been together for four months now. She owns a house, has a PhD and is debt free, but could there be another home-owning, stable, doctor out there who has a cat? With this illusion of better choice out there plaguing his mind, Michael bars himself from embracing the present whenever he is together with Sally. Sally senses a wall and Michael’s regret in ‘settling’ for Sally only serves to deteriorate and eat at this pretty good match.
We are swimming in a pool of high expectation and not living in the moment: Jared went on a date last night with the gorgeous Zadie who was so well-versed in all things, but she didn’t like ketchup on her fries and so Jared’s mind drifted to Marissa from the other night who didn’t read books, but at least she ate ketchup...hmm but what if there’s a girl named Tammy out there who reads, works, watches the news, has a dog, wants 5 kids and eats ketchup - Jared surmises it’s best to wait in loneliness and not ‘settle’ for either Zadie or Marissa because surely his imaginary future girlfriend Tammy is on her way.
The Solution To All Of This: Jeff Bezos
So what is the solution? Mindful dating.
A friend of mine in a Facebook post put it so well: “ the dating paradigm in general: seems broken. Dating strangers gets weirder and weirder to me the older I get. Incorporating people into your friend group and extending the getting to know you phase seems like the healthiest path”. If you don’t have friends, make some! Instead of hiding in your apartment, get out and go to your local coffee shop, get off your phone when you’re at the park and engage with other humans, talk to someone on the train.
Instead of aspiring to exhaust all choices out there by swiping on an app until there is no one left to swipe or running from date to date thinking the next will most certainly be better, slow it down; Stop, take a breath and at least be aware of what you are doing and who is sitting in front of you at dinner. Stop incorporating silly, specific and frivolous requirements like ‘she must eat ketchup’. In fact, it is the silly, specific, frivolous differences that bring people together, remember opposites attract.
Look to set in general standards for what you are looking for in someone. The richest man on Earth, Jeff Bezos, when on a quest to find a wife, “went on several blind dates, set up by friends. Bezos said he knew he’d found his wife when he met someone truly resourceful. ‘I wanted a woman who could get me out of a third-world prison’", Bezos said (The Economic Times). Not only did Bezos use his immediate network, not some window to the world digital device, he set an attainable standard of resourcefulness, packaged humorously in the statement that she had to get him out of an overseas jail.
Listen, I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know how exactly you are going to meet him - I am single myself. Maybe it will be on an app.
I do know that desperately booking a date because it is Friday night and then again on Saturday because that is what everyone else is doing is exhausting and frankly depressing. I hope after reading or listening to this you carry with you a new sense of knowing what you are looking for in general and not checking someone off your list because they differ from you when it comes to a distinct, specific feature. May you date mindfully with respect, undivided attention, and awareness to be present when on your next dinner date.
As always, let me know your thoughts.