The popularity of online dating has grown vastly in the last two decades and this is often the result of the fast and efficient way of meeting potential partners. Consequently, people download dating apps to pass time and entertain themselves – almost like a game.

A popular example is Tinder, which until 2016 users had the choice to either send a message to a match or ‘keep playing’ (they are now invited instead to ‘keep swiping’). 

The science of dating apps

According to Bateman’s principle of evolutionary psychology, men tend to be less picky when compared to women in picking a short-term partner or a ‘hook-up’. This is evident in the manner in which men and women swipe or select potential partners on dating apps. Men often go on autopilot when while swiping on these dating apps, selecting yes on all users without paying much attention.

Game theory

The game theory framework proposes a mathematical model of conflict and cooperation among rational decision-makers. This method originated in the development of economic models, but now is being applied to a variety of different concepts including evolutionary biology.

The theory is centered around the mathematician John Nash (the subject of the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind) and his Nash equilibrium. The Nash equilibrium discusses a solution that is employed when neither of two players (users) can gain an advantage from altering their strategy. However, this is only valid if the opponent (user) doesn’t change their strategy in direct response.

Nevertheless, this approach can lead to both users seeking strategies that do not optimize their outcome, but rather reduce their opponent from gaining the upper hand. The Nash equilibrium can happen if either of the players realizes that they can change their strategy to gain benefits and win, subsequently causing the opponent to react by counter-strategizing, leading to an infinite loop of strategizing until both parties settle.

How does game theory apply to online dating?

How does this relate to online dating?  Well, we can apply the Nash equilibrium in the manifestation of human courtship strategies where the behavior of one individual can influence or reinforce the behavior of others. If we interpret dating apps as a ‘game’, we can see that women and men benefit from distinct swiping strategies.  

Men are less selective and picky when using dating apps, often auto-swiping to increase their chances; only considering the profile when a match occurs and deciding to engage in conversation. Simply, only investing effort and energy when received a positive from the counter profile.

Under Bateman’s principles, men are primarily interested only in physical appearance thus they wait for an initial positive result – only considering their pictures and discarding the bio. However, a scenario where men may not engage in auto-swiping is when they are matched with too many people, causing them to spend more time considering every profile (unlikely for all but the most desirable). 

Contrary, women’s behavior on dating apps is different. Often, a woman will be matched with most men to whom she swipes yes, and thus is more selective to maximize chances for a better match and not waste time. 

This phenomenon can be explained using game theory when considering the premiums rolled out by various companies that cannot afford non-premium users the opportunity to pursue an indefinite auto-swipe regime at zero cost to themselves (except in terms of their time). This suggests that the users of dating apps need to take into account their chances of getting a yes swipe back (and it is significant to consider that premium or not, no swipes are always free). 

The payoff matrix

When considering the game theory, dating apps stand as an example of a normal form of game, a cost-benefit analysis of players’ decisions. A payoff matrix (below) can be constructed as a visual representation of the game. 

The above table shows a normal-form game between a man and a woman (they are both non-premium members), with payoffs and costs measured in terms of yes swipes (which the free services limited to a finite number per day). If he assumes that she will swipe no on him, he will probably reciprocate to avoid losing a swipe. Assuming that she will reciprocate with a yes, he will generally reciprocate, to create a match. This would make the two Nash equilibria, that are emboldened in the table.  

Game theory is about playing a mind game: where one player needs to guess what the other player will do and then respond. Dating apps, however, often source casual and short-term relationships, as game theory so demonstrates, dating apps are almost inherently unconducive to the formation of meaningful, long-term, loving relationships. Dating apps are arbitrary, random – and it is much harder to find love through them. 

Try a fresh approach to dating

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