We all know that person—the one who whips out his or her phone at completely inappropriate times: an intimate holiday dinner, a company meeting, his grandmother's funeral. They’re not checking work email or texting. No, they’re swiping.
Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. These poor souls can’t stop Tindering.
While Americans’ excessive use of Tinder has become a public nuisance, it’s not entirely users’ fault. Tinder is designed to play off your brain’s internal chemistry and get you permanently hooked, according to experts—which is why it’s nearly impossible to quit.
We talked to neuroscience, psychology, and social-media experts, who revealed the real reasons Tinder is addictive—and it has nothing to do with scoring a date.
Tinder is really a video game disguised as a dating app.
Ever started playing a video or smartphone game and felt physically unable to break away? These games are addictive, according to several studies, in part because they hijack the brain’s pleasure center, located in the prefrontal cortex.
It works like this: Every time a player kills a monster or collects gold, he or she feels a hit of pleasure. The user will thus repeat that action over and over again to experience that feeling.
Tinder is designed much the same way, except instead of collecting gold you collect matches. The more matches you rack up, the better you feel. The desire to Tinder is a learned response, explained Ellen Carpenter, professor of neuroscience at UCLA.
“If the frontal cortex decides having a Tinder response is pleasurable, it’s going to give you a shot of dopamine,” she said. “You then associate that pleasurable feeling with a ping on your phone.”
For those unfamiliar, dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that makes us feel good—it’s often associated with love, lust, gambling, and, yes, drugs. We love it so much we’ll do bad things to get it, like Tinder during Thanksgiving dinner.
Tinder is super accessible, and our brain knows it.
In psychology speak, Tindering is a “goal-directed behavior”—which means our brains mentally weigh the obstacles that stand between us and our urge to check the app and respond accordingly, explained John Monterosso, associate professor in the department of psychology at University of Southern California.
Since Tinder is usually an arm’s reach away, we don’t encounter many obstacles in satisfying our urge. “If the reward is a second away—like Tinder—the immediacy makes the goal-directed reward much more rewarding,” he said. The more accessible a reward is, the more we start craving it—and the more motivated we are to pursue it.
Tinder then becomes a habit we’re basically unaware of.
Say you’re binge-watching a show and a commercial comes on—do you grab your phone without a thinking? Does it take you a minute or two to realize you even started Tindering? If the answer is "yes," this is because a habit has been formed, explained USC’s Monterosso. Which means you’re no longer in control.
“You’re not just bored and you get the idea, or decide, to pick up Tinder,” he says. “You are bored, and the next thing you know, you’ve already picked up the phone. The action is initiated because it becomes a habit.”
It’s kind of like accidentally driving to work on a Saturday because you happen to be traveling along the same highway. You didn’t decide to go to work—your brain did it without you.
Looking at faces makes us feel awesome.
Tinder feeds you an endless photo stream of happy, smiling faces. Turns out, as humans, we’re hardwired to love this!
“Looking at faces is interesting to people because we are highly social creatures,” explained Monterosso. “A lot of brain real estate is built toward analyzing faces.” That real estate is called the fusiform gyrus, located in the temporal lobe. It allows us to recognize faces down to the smallest detail and pick up on others’ emotions just from tiny shifts in facial expressions.
Our attraction to faces is especially significant when it comes to Tinder because humans are also inclined to reciprocate the emotions other people show us, explained Daria Kuss, a psychology professor at Nottingham Trent University who has studied social-media addiction. “So if they look happy, we feel happy,” she says. In other words, every photo offers a chance to feel great. (Not counting the brooding bathroom-mirror shots, of course.)
The decisions involved are pretty straightforward.
Giving someone too many options can be a bad thing, leading to regret, studies have shown. With Tinder, you have two options for swiping: “Yes” or “No,” which makes the action highly satisfying. “I think ease of the decision is definitely part of [the appeal],” says Carpenter. “If you know that a ‘yes’ is going to give you a pleasurable outcome, then you’re more likely to keep going.”
“Matches” offer instant validation.
It’s no shock that humans crave acceptance (just ask middle schoolers), and matching on Tinder satisfies this craving. “We’re all social beings, it’s built into us,” said Kuss, who also wrote a book on social-media addiction and psychotherapy. “We need that validation, even if it’s based on how attractive we are.” Essentially, Tinder matches are like a Taco Bell run for our egos: cheap, but oh-so-satisfying.
Every new message represents an unknown.
Just like unopened emails and texts, Tinder messages demand your attention because each one represents an unknown—a magical mystery box, full of potential. What if this message is from my soul mate? What if it’s a hook-up emergency? Must. Find. Out.
Really, that’s just your addiction talking. “It’s compulsion,” said Kuss. Odds are, it’s just another random message from a random dude. Except for when it’s actually from your soul mate.
So how do you quit?
The bottomline? Tinder is a game that takes control of your brain’s reward system to keep you coming back for more, even if you no longer want to play. There will always be a new face, a new match, a new message, and yes, a new shot of dopamine to make you feel good.
But if you think quitting might be good for your health, you’re in luck. The app doesn’t involve chemical dependency—like, say, cocaine or heroin—and instead uses your brain’s internal chemistry against you. This makes the addiction a much easier one to break.
How do you break it? Now that you’re aware of the app’s power over you, you must make the choice to exert your own power over it. Put down your phone and walk away. Or delete the app. You're welcome.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.