While dating and personal ads have been around for decades, the way we meet the people we date has changed dramatically in the last five years.
Dating apps such as Tinder have captured a large portion of the online dating market. These apps, but especially Tinder, have transformed the way we represent ourselves online when we date.
Tinder is one of the first dating apps specifically designed for mobile phones as opposed to a full dating website. Launched in 2012 across college campuses, it has quickly become the most used dating app in the world, with more than 10 million daily active users.
On Tinder, date seekers upload profile photos and concise bios between 100-500 characters long. Compare this to more conventional dating sites which use more information – longer profiles as well as algorithms to match people.
Most online dating sites give the users the option to fill out a full profile, or even complete a survey about themselves. But because of Tinder’s popularity, online daters must now selectively convey more information using less: fewer words and more information through their profile pictures.
Swipe right, swipe left?
Tinder pulls from a user’s Facebook profile information about their gender, age and page “likes.” This information is strictly limited, and users rely on their reactions to profile pictures and brief bios to determine if they like (swipe right) or dislike (swipe left) a potential match. When two users swipe right for each other, they are connected – and only then are they able to start chatting.
Because Tinder is based primarily on pictures with limited substantial information about a person, it is often assumed that Tinder users focus solely on the appearance of their potential match.
However, in my preliminary research as a PhD candidate in marketing at Concordia University, I examine underlying motives for the the way people present themselves on dating apps. I use theories from evolutionary psychology to help provide an explanation for mating behaviours.
I also conducted a content analysis of Tinder profiles. Tinder profiles were examined and coded for signals people may be displaying such as conspicuous consumption, blatant benevolence and virtue. I argue people signal more than just attractiveness in their profiles.
While attractiveness is important, users are actually signalling much more than just stereotypical looks. Instead, they use specific visual cues in their profile pictures and keywords in their short bios.
How men and women compete for dates
Men are likely to signal specific resources or potential for acquiring resources, while women are more likely to signal pro-social behaviours such as benevolence, charitable work or virtue. These cues are not necessarily at the forefront of our mind, but rather instinctual decisions.
Some of these gender differences in online dating behaviour and self-representation can be explained by parental investment theory. Differences manifest due to the levels of investment in one’s offspring. That is, the amount of time we invest in child-rearing has an impact on how picky we are with our mates.
According to parental investment theory, the sex that has the higher investment in their offspring is likely to be more selective when choosing a mating partner.
Therefore, women will be more choosy when it comes to selecting a mate, given that they are more invested in their potential offspring.
On the other hand, men can increase their chances for genetic survival by having sex with as many women as possible throughout their lifetime. Their minimum investment is merely copulation.
Because, psychologically speaking, it is in the male’s interest to copulate with as many females as possible, but it is in the female’s interest to be as selective as possible, males have developed a predisposition to be more competitive for potential dates.
This theory speaks to basic needs for which we look for in a potential date and how we compete for dates. I use Tinder as a context to explore these tendencies further.
Attracting your mate through signs
How do these different strategies manifest in Tinder profiles? Costly signalling theory suggests that people engage in behaviours that can be costly to signal positive information about themselves and their genetic fitness to others.
The classic example used to describe this phenomenon is the peacock’s tail. The quality of the peacock’s tail is an honest signal to the quality of its genetic makeup and fitness. A higher-quality tail is costly because it requires energy and resources to grow and maintain.
As well, a high-quality tail can be detrimental to the peacock by attracting predators. And only a peacock in good health has the traits needed to survive the burden of being extra-attractive - therefore it is also a sign of genetic fitness.
Essentially, humans will also display costly signals. Even on Tinder, with only pictures and short bios, we want to give a potential match as much information as possible.
The ability to provide for offspring (such as having or being able to acquire resources) is a valued trait in men (by women).
It has been suggested that conspicuous consumption, the act of spending money to impress others by showing that one can purchase unnecessary items, is an honest signal of resources to potential mates. Therefore, in order to signal resources (a valued trait by females), a male will use conspicuous consumption.
On the other hand, it has been suggested that men value benevolence and virtue in a mate. Men want to know that their offspring will be taken care of, and that they can trust that they will actually be investing in their own offspring and not someone else’s because of infidelity.
So, even if men may be more likely to be open to uncommitted sex, they look for virtuous and loyal traits in a woman. As such, in order to signal these traits, women will use expressions of commitment to a long-term relationship — virtue and loyalty — and blatant displays of benevolence or charitable behaviours.
Currency in the age of Tinder
How are visual cues in pictures and key terms in the short bios the new currency of dating? In my content analysis of Tinder profiles, I noticed visual signs of conspicuous consumption, blatant benevolence and virtue.
My initial findings suggest that men do, in fact, use more conspicuous consumption in their profile pictures compared to women. This can be displayed through expensive brands being shown, nice cars in their pictures or even expensive-looking vacations.
This is mostly displayed through their profile pictures because their bios rarely say anything substantial.
On the other hand, women are more likely to signal commitment to a relationship. Phrases such as “no hookups,” or “no one-night stands” and “only looking for long term” are most often seen in female profiles. Women seem to be signalling that they want committed relationships, a trait important to males (even if they are open to uncommitted sex).
In the pictures themselves, women are likely to display these preferred traits in their profile pictures. They are likely to depict themselves playing with children, volunteering abroad or engaging in other charitable work – all signals of benevolence.
As we can see, there is more to a Tinder profile than meets the conscious mind. While attractiveness is important, it is not the only factor. In fact, subtle cues to specific traits – such as potential for resources, benevolence, and virtue – are just as important and are the dating currency in the Tinder age.
Chaim Kuhnreich, PhD Candidate in Marketing, Concordia University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.