If you use dating apps, you've probably noticed that you can get into quite the trance when you're looking through all the romantic prospects. So, what is happening to your brain when you swipe right or left to keep you coming back for more, even when you aren't necessarily finding love? Well, there are quite a few underlying processes at play in the noggin during that quick decision on someone's profile — so many, in fact, that it's a little disconcerting. One of them is the instant reaction of attraction or romance.
"Love at first sight is a real thing," Dr. Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, tells Bustle. "Now, it can totally dissolved as you meet and talk to the person, but it can be triggered by pictures."
Fisher has found in her research that there are three basic brain systems when it comes to relationships and dating: sex drive, romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment. These are potentially activated when you're swiping, and are areas of the brain that lure you to have sex, invest in someone as a partner, or ultimately, feel deeply attached, as though you have a cosmic union.
"It's not hard to activate the sex or romance response just by looking at someone, although attachment develops a lot slower." Fisher says. "When you feel that attraction or romance, you trigger the dopamine system. And if they swipe right on you? Then you can get a higher dose of dopamine. Now you’re on an adventure."
Jessica James, a lecturer at Texas State University who recently authored the chapter, “Love At Our Fingertips: Exploring the Design Implications of Mobile Dating Technologies,” in a publication about sex in the digital age, tells Bustle that she focuses on what motivates people to use online dating sites, specifically Tinder. This means understanding the potential of new "media gratifications" granted by smartphones and mobile technology. James proposes that there is quite literally a lot at play when you're swiping.
"Media consumption has traditionally been a relaxation activity," James says. "It was passive consumption [like TV and radio] but now it's much more direct activity that we engage in a give and take fashion. It makes it seems more like a game."
This new type of technology interaction is something James refers to as "gameification," in fact, a process that ups the gratification of everyday activities. When there are apps for things like going to the grocery store and exercising, it makes a previous activity that you just did, into a game you play that has rewards.
And that includes the game of love, of course.
"We've historically used mediated sources or third party assistance like matchmakers to help find love," James says, that's not new. "But this is a space where we are making the decision ourselves. And the reward isn’t finding someone, it's more the instant gratification. It becomes more about the sexual aspect."
In psychology, we are motivated by two things, James says. Intrinsic motivations, like needing to eat, sleep, find shelter, and procreate — or extrinsic motivations, like deciding to play sports to get a college scholarship. Extrinsic motivations are not for survival— they are for a reward we are trying to pursue.
"When it comes to the motivation for using a mobile dating app, even if you have this idea that you're using it to find a long-term partner, there are other types of rewards you find there that you can choose over that," James says. "If you use this app and, say, continue to have a lot of sex, that might start being a reward you like more than finding a long-term partnership."
At the end of the day, the process becomes fun in a very artificial environment. And when it becomes low stakes fun, it can dilute the feelings someone has about partnerships or connecting with people on a deeper level. When you have a network of options, a marketplace, James says, you could be a lot more hesitant to invest in people.
James says that online dating has also really shifted since it's initial creation. "If I went to a desktop and created an in-depth eharmony account, that was a real investment. These apps are very 'hi, bye, hi, bye,'" James says. "The easy access changes the whole dynamic. We are pressing a lever and getting a reward, and the swiping gives you the control. It's also just a way to pass the time."
James says what's difficult to discern is if the technology is telling us what to do, or we're telling the technology what to do. But the excitement of a swipe right — unlocking "a new level" or a new possibility of opportunity, keeps us coming back for more.
It's worth noting these things the next time you pop open that app for a quick game of choice. Ask yourself what it is you are really hoping to get out of the whole thing, and remember — you are dealing with real people, it just happens to be in an artificial reality.
Dr. Helen Fisher, Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.
Jessica James, lecturer at Texas State University, and author of the chapter, “Love At Our Fingertips: Exploring the Design Implications of Mobile Dating Technologies" and previously, Mobile Dating in the Digital Age: Computer-Mediated Communication and Relationship Building on Tinder