January 07, 2014
The Tinder Game
Thoughts on the hookup app that's not entirely about hookups
With Tinder, you will find love, happiness, and unicorns!

“The possibilities feel endless!

Potential love connections everywhere!”

That's the sentiment most people share when they fire up the app. Ever since my friend convinced me to get Tinder (ahum), I've had this thought: People aren't using Tinder because it's a dirty hookup app where everyone gets laid, but because it's a well-designed, instantly gratifying skinner box that rewards with social validation.

Though media claims “the quick follow-through from swipe to sex is similarly instinctive for a generation with an appetite for immediacy,” I’m not sure many Tinder users actually get from swipe to sex. I do know that Tinder provides something very salient and gratifying, regardless of sex. Tinder is succcessful because it’s essentially a marriage of Hot or Not and World of Warcraft: it cleverly uses game mechanics, psychology, and the potential for romance, to take advantage of our craving for immediacy, gratification, and validation.

In the end, Tinder is not a dating app. It’s not the scourge upon society that media likes to portray it as, or the dirty hookup app that reduces us to sex-craving animals.

Instead, it’s merely a game. it’s an environment for social validation, confidence-building, and for people to feel good about themselves.

Press the lever

Remember from Psych 101 that behavior can be learned through rewards and punishment (operant conditioning), and that a Skinner Box is a tool that conditions animals to new behavior. For example, a rat presses a lever (a response) to receive a food pellet. The frequency and types of rewards and punishments are changed to see what kind of behavior can be elicited from the rat.

If at first you don’t succeed, try- try- try again!

Also recall that in operant conditioning, one of the most successful ways to shape a behavior (a ‘response’) is called a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. At first, a rat receives a steady number of rewards for their response. For example, one food pellet is given for every lever press. Once the rat has learned the response, a reward is only randomly given after correct responses. Eventually, fewer rewards are given for the same number of button presses, but the rat continues to press the lever (for a while). If the rewards have stopped completely, eventually the rat will press the lever less often (extinction).

Examples of variable ratio schedules include slot machines and leveling up in certain video games (EverQuest was notorious for this). In these games, players perform a number of responses like pulling a lever or killing a monster, and receive a variable reward like a certain amount of money, experience points. This type of reinforcement scheme convinces players that playing for longer usually yields more rewards. Often, players will continue to play because they feel they will receive more rewards if they play for just a little bit longer.

This is essentially why gambling and some games could become so addictive.

“This online dating app is really a judging app”

So what does all of this have to do with an online dating app?

Tinder turns online dating on its head by embracing a simple mechanic, and by deliberately removing features that are common among traditional dating apps. The app only presents users with one profile at a time, does not allow for users to browse or search profiles, and forces users to browse profiles through an incredibly easy judging mechanic. This combination mimics the Skinner Box environment, where the swipe is the response, and the match is the reward.

In many ways, Tinder is a step backwards from more popular dating apps - it hides a lot of the information that would otherwise make someone look more appealing. But Tinder eschews long-winded descriptors and algorithmic match-making for a more game-like experience, by recognizing the basic fact that we are inherently ‘shallow’. It caters to our most primitive instinct of physical attraction to create an exciting experience. It’s like a blind version of online dating.

More than just a food pellet

That deeply personal, useful and instantly gratifying information makes Tinder an addictive experience, with each match fueling a kind of emotional high. Research has shown 'likes' on Facebook and retweets and Twitter can release a dopamine surge that lead to social media addiction. It suggests we're all but starving for likes. in our push to figure out which strangers, and how many, think we're hot. - HuffPo

We all know that being complimented makes us happy. Being complimented online is no different.

Tinder uses the feeling of being complimented to drive its game mechanic. Swipe right, and you will know if someone thinks you’re hot. If it wasn’t a match, maybe they haven’t seen your profile yet. But the next one? Oh, s/he’s cute - maybe s/he’s seen your profile. Maybe there’s a match. Swipe right. Eventually, you’ll find a match, right?

The app never tells you if a profile rejected you. Maybe they just haven’t seen your profile yet. In a large city of hundreds of users, you’re bound to match at least a few profiles, right? Well, keep swiping, or you won’t ever find out.

Furthermore, any user that has not been matched cannot be messaged. In addition to social validation, matching also shields users from unsolicited messages and any potential for the feelings of rejection. While most dating apps might either result in unreturned or unsolicited messages, Tinder’s mechanic sidesteps both of these problems.

In the end, Tinder’s success lies in its positiive, variable ratio reinforcement scheme, where a potential match seems right around the corner, and players won’t ever be disappotinted.

$$ A Scourge Upon Society

Tinder gthoughts permission for those in our culture to rate others based on physical appearance, and furthermore, it teaches us how to slash an 'X' on those we find unattractive (too old, too short, too much facial hair)... it teaches us that dating, then, is a process of physical attraction and only physical attraction. - Mich Daily (or any media outlet ever)

Isn’t dating already a process of physical attraction? Tinder merely introduces those who find each other attractive. Like an initial flirt at a bar. What the players do with this information is up to them. Even “real” dating sites are not immune to this type of judgment. In Jon Milward’s attraction experiment, the two most attractive women received almost six times more messages than the other three women combined. Apparently, attractive people receive more attention.

But a more difficult question to answer is: How many people actually use Tinder seriously, as a hookup app? How many use it more than just a way to kill time? How many matches end up in longer, extend online conversations, and how many eventually become face-to-face encounters, and out of those encounters, how many actually end in a hookup? My suspicion: probably not many. I predict that most people use Tinder more as a tool for social validation, rather than for hookups. Tinder’s a feel-good app over a hookup app.

Many, especially teens, turn to social media for validation. Many of them resort to “pretty or ugly” threads on sites like Youtube or Reddit, where some of the feedback can get pretty nasty.

Tinder offers a similar type of validation for those who seek it, but without the scathing feedback that haunts social media. The also helps reduce the deluge of unsolicited and often nasty messages that seem to overwhelm the attractive female’s inbox.

Behind the Scene

I’d be curious to learn how Tinder’s algorithm actually works in the background. Tinder requires a user’s Facebook profile, location, and a few basic preferences like user gender and preferred gender to start showing matches. But how does it know who to match, and in what order? Does it assume that, since users swipe through profiles so quickly, that it can just show profiles on random? Or is it smarter?

Potentially, the app could choose what profiles to show based on how it wants to shape the user’s behavior, just like a Skinner Box. As a user judges more profiles, the app will learn more about a user’s preferences, like preferred age and interests. The app will also know how attractive or popular someone is based on how many likes and crosses the person has received. Potentially, it could also learn what type of people the user likes, including race, facial type, profile description, and more.

The developers could build a score for desirability for each profile, and treat highly desirable profiles as rewards to help shape a user’s behavior. Some indicators of desirability could include:

Popularity (number of Likes and Crosses)

Number of images

Number of mutual friends


Profile description

Distance from user

Mutual match

With this information, the developers could adjust the displayed profiles to create a variable ratio schedule. If too many desirable profiles are successively shown, users might become jaded and bored. If too few are shown, users might start losing interest. The developers must strike a balance between highly desirable and less-than-desirable profiles to get users to continue using the app.

If the app detects that users are becoming too swipe-happy, it could indicate that there are “no current matches near you,” to prevent the user from swiping too much. It might also delay displaying a match, if the user has frequently been receiving them. Thus, the match is saved for moments when a user is less popular.

In the end, the entire data that Tinder sits on is like a popularity contest, that the developers could use to mold and shift user behavior. Would be interesting if the developers released some analytics.


As addictive as it is, Tinder is a passing fad. It’s a one-trick pony without longevity. After thousands of swipes, users will eventually get bored. The novelty will wear out, and profiles will blur together and look the same. Maybe users will start Liking every profile to see how many matches they get. Maybe matches will eventually get less exciting. Maybe users will eventually want something else.

With the fast swiping mechanic, many users will probably exhaust their local cache of profiles. When that happens, will Tinder really transform us into the shallow, commoditized, and sex-depraved pieces of meat that media portrays us? Or will it just increase our hunger for deeper and more emotionally fulfilling relationships?

The app merely caters to our human nature. It caters to our desire for inclusion, social validation, and acceptance, while safely protecting us from hurtful insults, shameful rejections and nasty creeps. I highly doubt it will change us in any significant ways.

Its future lies in its capability of establishing validation and building connections… Not in hooking up.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more swiping to get back to.