Gone are the days of a relationship being stigmatized for having begun online. One third of marriages in the US now begin online, and 50 million people worldwide use Tinder alone.

However, we might already have moved passed the “golden era” of online dating—because while 72% of millennials have used dating apps, Hinge reports that less than 1 in 500 swipes leads to even an exchange in phone numbers, never mind a date. But despite this, when dating-focused social network Badoo surveyed its 370 million users, they found the average user to spend 90 minutes a day on online dating.

This all begs the question: What is it that keeps so many singles coming back to online dating, even though many have experienced firsthand that doing so rarely leads to real-life encounters? And what does this behavior mean for how we view the world and treat one another?

How are dating platforms “gamifying” romance?

Gamification is “the application of gaming mechanics to non-gaming environments to make difficult tasks more palatable.” Dating platforms are predicated on the fact that we become neurochemically addicted to feeling good, as with all social media platforms. A modicum of validation online stimulates the release of endorphins, which reduces anxiety and makes us feel great. Matching with someone on a dating app floods your brain with adrenaline—it feels like you’ve won something. And the app designers know that. After all, unpredictable awards cause higher activity in the reward regions of the brain than rewards we know are coming. In HBO’s new documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, Tinder cofounder Jonathan Badeen lays it out simply: ‘Having unpredictable yet frequent rewards is the best way to motivate somebody to keep moving forward.’ Sound familiar?

Getting a match also stimulates the release of dopamine. This makes you feel fantastic—but also creates a pernicious feedback loop. As your brain quickly adapts to this regular but unpredictable neurochemical release, it learns to anticipate and reward your very exposure to the source of that release. This has been dubbed the “dopamine loop,” and it’s what keeps us returning to online dating time and again. It becomes less about finding love, and more about getting a swift hit of that sweet dopamine.

The cost of the game

As with all short-term pleasures, there’s a risk of addiction and burnout, followed by isolation and loneliness. In fact, while many singles download dating apps with a sincere desire to mitigate their loneliness by finding a partner, they may soon find that these very same platforms serve only to exacerbate their sense of isolation as they become hooked on avatars rather than organic, real-life interactions. 15% of singles actually describe themselves as “addicted” to the very process of looking for a date online.

This also has implications for how we treat others. Take ghosting, when someone we’ve become romantically invested in ceases communication for no apparent reason. 25% of singles who have used dating apps have been ghosted—and 20% have done the ghosting. The anonymous online world in which we live has mitigated the risk of reputation damage, which perpetuates poor behavioral patterns and leads to lower empathy. Prior to online dating, we were much more likely to date friends of friends—and if you acted like a jerk, everyone would know about it soon enough. What’s more, the very use of cutesy, childlike words like ghosting more easily enables what are unequivocally undesirable behaviors that lead to a more atomized and fragmented society.

Characters in a game

According to psychotherapist Denise Dunne, the game-like interface of dating apps has primed them—perhaps inevitably—for antisocial dating behavior. ‘The design could contribute to an objectification of user profiles and consequent reported narcissistic behavior of ghosting, breadcrumbing, benching, and general dishonesty,’ she says. After all, if all the singles you see on Tinder ‘are just characters in a game then they don’t have feelings to hurt.’

Of course there are upsides to online dating, and being better informed about how unchecked use of it can lead to undesirable behaviors helps us engage with it more mindfully, and in ways that are less likely to hurt others—and ourselves. But if you’ve had enough of online dating and want to date with meaning, meeting people with whom you are genuinely compatible—we can help.

Maclynn is a boutique, multi-award-winning introductions agency with offices in New York, New Jersey, California, and London. We’re world-renowned for bringing together highly compatible singles within our vast network of attractive, intelligent professionals, and our matchmakers are relationship experts in their own right. Get in touch today, and prepare for genuinely meaningful dating—just like you deserve.