It’s a typical Thursday night at college, and my friends and I are crowding into my tiny dorm room as we wait for some buffalo wings to be delivered.
As we begin to relax, my friend Dennis opens up Tinder.
He swipes through various profiles, and when he gets a match, we all draft a funny message to send to the user. There’s nothing overtly romantic or sexual about it — it’s all in good fun and all of the participants seem to realise that. She responds with a witty rejoinder and we all laugh.
But there’s no talk of Dennis meeting up with the funny stranger to hang out. Instead, he just carries on the conversation until he and the other user tire of it. Then, it’s on to the next match.
The way my friends use Tinder goes against everything I’ve heard about the app. I always thought it was for dating — or, at the very least, hooking up. But it seems like my friends are using it in an almost platonic way. It’s like Tinder is just another social network for them, and they’re having a blast using it.
It’s not that my friends aren’t hooking up at all. The real-life house party encounter is still their preferred way to meet people. It’s just that they also use Tinder.
So without the end goal of finding a new girlfriend or even just going on a single date, why are they so obsessed with the app? Could it be the next Facebook, with users mostly looking for a platonic connection?
I decided to talk to four experts in the human brain to figure out the science behind this particular way of using Tinder. Here’s what we’re all actually getting when we swipe right.
1. A rush of feel-good chemicals in the brain
I found out that the biggest reason that people love Tinder is the neurochemical release that comes with receiving a match. Tinder matches can signal a pleasurable reaction in the human body, according to our experts — specifically a release of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s involved in how we process pleasure and motivation, according to Slate’s Bethany Brookshire. It’s typically released in anticipation of a reward. That reward can come from a sexual partner, a colourful pill, or a slice of pie.
“I think that’s what makes Tinder so great for a lot of people,” Dr. Sesen Negash, an assistant professor at Alliant International University, told Tech Insider. “They can get that release over and over again, like a drug.”
Knowing that someone saw your photo and swiped right in approval can give Tinder users the same ego boost that comes from getting hit on or noticed in real life — without the messy details of actually meeting or hooking up.
Anna Leifeste, who holds a masters in psychology from Northwestern University, agrees that dopamine is one of the reasons people love using Tinder, even when they don’t arrange real life encounters. In her job at the matchmaking company Three Day Rule, she meets many single people who use Tinder as a game in order to get that rush.
“It can feel really good to feel like people want you or you’re accepted,” Leifeste said.
Even if my friends think they’re emotionally divorced from their Tinder interactions, they’re all still benefiting from that rush.
2. The opportunity for a “fantasy life”
Let’s face it. Long-term relationships are great, but there’s a lot to be said for the initial spark of meeting a new person who interests you.
I have one friend who loves his girlfriend — and his Tinder. He would never intentionally flirt with someone other than his girlfriend in real life, but he thinks nothing of doing it on Tinder.
“It’s a validation thing,” he said. “It’s a nice outlet to remind myself that I haven’t devolved into a totally unappealing sloth.”
Dr. Harris Stratyner, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, chalks this type of Tinder use up to every human’s need for the type of excitement their real lives might not allow.
“A lot of guys, even married men, go on Tinder and they lie because they want to live in a fantasy life,” he said.
And it’s not just people in long-term relationships who crave these feelings of excitement. Leifeste explains that dating in real life can be scary, but Tinder allows users to avoid that stress and flirt without any real-life expectations.
“There’s something really safe about Tinder’s model,” she said. Instead of seeing all the people who rejected their pictures, users only see the people who swiped right on their profile. This means Tinder users can casually fantasize about their many matches without any fear of rejection.
3. The see-and-be-seen element
Tinder also capitalises on human’s natural desire for acknowledgment and comparison. In analysing why college students have made Tinder into a game, Leifeste points to the social comparison theory.
“We all have this drive to gain an accurate self-evaluation,” Leifeste said. “And we do that by looking for cues and by comparing ourselves to others,” she continued.
In that same vein, Statyner thinks that humans are attracted to Tinder for the same reason they’re attracted to outdoor seating in Paris.
“I think there’s a voyeuristic element to all human beings,” he said. Being on Tinder allows users to casually examine and judge the profile’s of others, sort of like people-watching.
Casual Tinder users probably subconsciously enjoy the ability to control exactly how they are seen by others. “People only see the photos that you chose, the angle that you selected them to see,” Leifeste said.
So while my friends might think that all they get from Tinder is a few laughs on a boring Thursday night, science tells us that in fact, they’re much more invested in how it makes them feel than they might think.
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