FEATURE: The Digital Dating Game

By on February 7, 2017

Happy Valentine’s Day! Can we hurry this dinner along? I have another date in an hour.   

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Nailed it, the perfect text: A firm request with a timeframe and a reference to her pet basset hound. Now I just wait the standard 20-minute response window and I’m golden. Maybe next weekend I can take her to that concert my friend was telling me about.

Thirty minutes later: Why did I put three “ys” in “Heyyy”? No one does that anymore. I shouldn’t have mentioned the dog; maybe she didn’t get the joke. I sound so desperate. Why didn’t I just go with a soft opening and ask about what she did this off-season? OK, calm down. Maybe she didn’t get the text yet.

The next day: Umm, her Facebook status from yesterday reads, “Deepcember 2016” and she had time to post an Instagram photo of her powder turns, but she didn’t have two seconds to answer my text? WTF.

And two exclamation points? What was I thinking?  Am I a complete moron?

Modern romance and human nature don’t always get along. Technology promised to make relationships easier through quick communication and more options for connection, but did our brains get the memo? The social animals that we are, humans crave interaction and information, but could evolution have predicted that we would carry a 24-7 singles bar in our pockets, or that Valentine’s Day memes would one day replace flowers and chocolate? Our DNA and ingrained mating strategies seem to be playing catch up to the new ways of finding love in the time of Tinder, Facebook flirting, and winking emojis. Human beings share a large set of unconscious tendencies that were encoded into our genes over millions of years and are now being played out in predictable ways in modern relationships.

People are not puppets to their past, but certain predispositions compel folks to analyze texts, lose sleep over profile pictures, and second guess those they choose as mates.

According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, if you took cavemen from 30,000 years ago and threw them into the modern dating scene, their Paleolithic emotions would be very similar to our own.

“The essential choreography of human courtship, love, and marriage has a myriad of designs that seem etched into the human psyche through the product of time, selection, and evolution,” Fisher explained. These mating shortcuts were hardwired into our species to make sexual selection strategies easier for our cave-dwelling ancestors, but they also make modern dating a never-ending headache.

Take for instance, the scarcity principle, which whispers to our unconscious that any asset that is less available is therefore more valuable. This makes sense when bartering for meat during a famine, but it becomes frustrating when applied to modern day texting strategies where, in order to appear busier than your suitor, the rules dictate to never respond immediately, never exceed the previous text’s number of characters, and never be the last one to text. These games may appear childish and unnecessary, but your chances of finding a date next Friday may depend on how well you can blend your outdated brain with modern technology.

Fickle lovers

The first rule our ancestors passed along to us is to make negative information a priority, because if you have a tiger or a berry bush in front of you, addressing those big teeth should come first. This is called the negativity bias and it can wreak havoc in our relationships. Focusing on problems has its advantages, but when the smoke detector in our brain is faced with an unanswered text, we quickly suspect the worst-case scenario.

Local massage therapist Hannah Strauss has experienced this phenomenon. “Texting can take up so much energy, you can start to think about it all the time, wondering if they are going to text back; do we have plans or not? So much thought gets wasted on it.”  Since texting has no predetermined response time, it leaves people with a sense of unease while trying to figure out the motives of a potential mate. Staying in this state of confusion keeps the suitor on our minds and can influence who we’re drawn to.

This may work to a man’s advantage. One study published by the Journal of Psychological Science found that women are most attracted to men that are “uncertain” about them and these “mysterious” men tend to stay in women’s thoughts more often.

Christian Rudder of the OkCupid website found that men get the most matches when their profile pictures show them not smiling and looking away from the camera. Women, on the other hand, were more successful when using “selfies” shot down from a high angle with a slightly coy look.

Overall, his findings suggest that 90 percent of your fate as an online dater depends on the photos you select to depict yourself. By the way, the OkCupid website alone sets up 40,000 new dates per day, 3,000 of which will become long-term relationships, 200 of which will result in marriage.

Indeed, relationships and technology are now so intertwined that from 2005 to 2014 more than one-third of all marriages resulted from an internet connection, according to research from the University of Texas.

For some locals, like Chad Spracklen, who happens to be gay, the internet, he says, is his only option for finding a partner. But he doesn’t like the stigma that comes along with meeting someone in the online world. “Whenever I tell people I met my boyfriend online they give me a long look like I just bought him at Kmart,” he said.

Others, like Strauss, also attribute their current dating success to having the options that technology provides. “I doubt I would have found my current boyfriend without a dating app,” Strauss admitted. “I wouldn’t have known he was single or looking and our paths would most likely never have crossed.”

In today’s hyper-connected world, technology has made finding people easier, but also more confusing. Lindsay Goldring, an 80s child who grew up listening to cassette tapes and witnessed the death of landlines, sees the downsides of integrating our digital and real life selves. Goldring argues that someone’s online persona “can feel like a third person in the relationship and oftentimes can cause conflict and trust issues.” Although she first connected with her current boyfriend online, Goldring says she tries to keep her relationship as technology-free as possible.

Some people remain unconvinced of the benefits of a shifting dating landscape. Davis Carr, who works at two local restaurants, describes himself as an “old school romantic living in a hook-up culture.” He says technology hasn’t improved relationships. “It has succeeded at getting people together at a faster speed, but at the expense of cheapening the experience.”

For Carr, it’s a numbers game. “Seven out of 10 times my advances are ignored, because girls are getting texted from 20 different guys every day.” He lamented that “humans can’t process that much information at one time, so guys can get thrown to the side because it’s easier than sorting through it all.” Carr admits, however, that for him online dating is not all negative, as it allows him to juggle vetting mates with his busy schedule and let’s him expand his search radius for a companion. He is on three different dating apps: Bumble, Tinder, and Plenty of Fish. This has allowed him to meet up with women from Pocatello, Idaho Falls, and even Mesquite, Nevada.

Option overload and commitment phobia

Indeed, options for finding that perfect “soul mate” seem to be increasing by the hour, but our brains are having a hard time processing all the choices in front of us. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, our programming only allows us to process a limited amount of social information at once, because in our tribal past we lived in an average group size of 150 people. In contrast, in today’s dating culture the world is at your fingertips, where a woman could be simultaneously texting with her crush at work, Snapchatting with a banker from Cleveland, and flirting with a bloke from Ireland on Facebook. Having this many points of contact with numerous potential suitors may seem exciting, but our brains have trouble committing when we are presented with too many options.

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, has spent his career studying the problems associated with choice overload and has found that the more options we have the less satisfied we become. Schwartz has demonstrated that an excess of options can lead to indecision and paralysis. He points to a study where samples of jam were set up in an artisan food store. In one scenario people could choose between six types of jam. In another experiment shoppers could select from 24 varieties. When more options were presented, people were more likely to stop and peruse the jams, but less likely to buy them. However, when people actually browsed the smaller table they were 10 times more likely to commit and buy a jar.

This experiment gets played out in our dating lives, where a seeming onslaught of “options” is around every corner and you can swipe right 40 times while ordering a sandwich.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt explains that the more choices there are “the more you expect to find a perfect fit and the less likely it becomes you picked the best person.”

This can lead to an “upgrade issue” where people may find a mate they like but continue onto the next person anyway because they’re curious if a better alternative is available.

Spracklen, a hair stylist, says he sees this play out in Jackson Hole with his female clients’ dating styles. And that here, it is the women who have the advantage. “Men in this town become very replaceable, women have a lot of control, they only go out with a guy when they want to and if they don’t like the guy’s outfit they will drop him and date someone else the next day.”

Men in the valley are also susceptible to the self esteem boost that dating apps can provide, many times thinking they are the future Don Juans after getting three matches on Tinder. Hiding behind their phones, dating app trolls will sometimes lash out at females when they feel rebuffed. Goldring recalls one experience where she turned down a suitor and received “some pretty rude and uncivil messages, almost as if he didn’t realize there was a person behind the number he was texting.”

In a world of seemingly abundant mates and lovers, many go to extreme lengths to make sure they have explored all their options. From an evolutionary perspective, this is called abundance denial, where people refuse to believe they have everything they need because their brains don’t want them to get complacent. This “never good enough” philosophy extends from our caveman days where our berry supply would eventually run out and we always had to keep searching for greener pastures. Unfortunately, for our modern day partners this means that we have an unquenchable thirst to always keep on the hunt for the perfect match.

For the unrequited lover who gets left behind, this dismissal can be literally painful. The same section of a person’s brain activated during rejection also lights up when she is being physically hurt. The interesting evolutionary explanation behind this is that our caveman brains associate rejection with being thrown out of the tribe and eventual death.

Evolution + technology = an odd match

Life on the Serengeti also programmed our species to search out instant gratification, because if you didn’t get your reward today it might not be there tomorrow. Smartphones and online dating hijack this outdated system by giving us a constant source of synthetic happiness.

Phone checking, which the average American does 150 times per day, according to the 2016 Internet Trend Report by Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, gives us a similar high that gamblers feel when they pull the wheel on a slot machine. This anticipation of a reward for both phone and gambling addicts produces a higher amount of dopamine than actually receiving a text or winning a round of cards. Scientists call this the progress principle, where we are more highly rewarded chemically for moving towards a goal than actually achieving the desired outcome.

That’s why the chase in relationships is so much more exciting than actually getting what you want. Dopamine is a “craving” neurotransmitter and is only released in limited quantities, so once an objective is obtained the brain sees no reason to keep releasing happiness chemicals.

In fact, studies by psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz at the New York State Psychiatric Institute demonstrate that during the infatuation stage your brain produces PEA, phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring amphetamine in the body that produces feelings of elation, euphoria, and exhilaration, which dwindles the longer you stay with a person.

In her book, Anatomy of Love, anthropologist Helen Fisher echoes Liebowitz’s findings. She presents brain research indicating the passionate stage of a relationship feels similar to being on low doses of meth, while the long-term companion stage feels more like having a glass of wine. Evolution likes to keep it this way, so that in the beginning stages of a relationship, we have sex more often, increasing our chances of procreation. Then once the reproductive window closes, we can get back to more “productive” activities like raising our young.

This may all seem very depressing for the lifespan of a relationship and lead one to question the merits of monogamy (as many have and continue to do). But evolution has also given our species the biochemical oxytocin to make sure we stay together long enough to give our offspring a fighting chance. Oxytocin is the chemical your brain releases after a long hug or when you stare into the eyes of your partner, giving us the sensation of feeling connected through “interactional synchronicity.”

Not surprisingly, however, conversing over screens doesn’t give the full hit of oxytocin that conversing in person does, and therefore having a relationship primarily over technology affects people’s ability to bond.

For others who do spend time with each other in the physical sense, technology presents another set of problems. Dalia Perez, a sex and relationship coach, said that sometimes technology can be used as an “intentional distracter by partners who hide behind their screens and miss out on the deeper intimacy that comes from working through problems.”

Escaping to technology during challenging times wasn’t an available option only two decades ago. “People can now take their work home with them and if couples are always checking their phones, their minds are someplace else, impacting their long-term connection as partners.”

The digital world appears a poor substitute for living in reality, as many internet introductions can either flourish or flounder when two people meet in the flesh.

Spracklen agrees. “Some people do horrible personal marketing with Instagram or Facebook, but in real life they are beautiful people.” The opposite can also be true, as Spracklen has often been “catfished,” where people “lie about their age, height, put up old photos and are not at all who they were on the internet.”

In many ways, people only show airbrushed versions of themselves in the digital world, but in person those flaws and imperfections are harder to hide. Goldring adds that social media “allows you to judge a person before you meet them and allows too much room for assumptions and is nothing like meeting someone face to face.”

Evolution has matched couples successfully for millions of years and those connections had always happened in person. Fisher advises people to trust their noggins. “The brain is the best algorithm for finding your future mate. There is not a dating service on this planet that can do what the human brain can do in terms of finding the right person”

One way that evolution accomplishes this goal is through the five million olfactory neurons dangling from each nasal cavity. These pheromones travel through the “cranial nerve zero,” which subconsciously identifies which mates differ from you genetically so that you do not mate with your relatives. The odor dating service, Smell Dating, will now even send a sweat soaked piece of clothing to potential partners in order to help avoid awkward first dates, where your aromas don’t line up.

This strategy may actually be superior to any online dating site, as people are consistently unaware of what they actually desire in a partner, at least according to Match.com’s Amarnath Thomas. “People frequently break their own rules and go way outside of what they say they want,” Thomas said. People may write in their profile they desire someone who is blonde, has a college degree, and loves hiking, but then end up dating someone who is a brunette, dropped out of high school, and binge watches Netflix. This discrepancy may be due in part to a phenomenon called the self-verification theory, where people choose partners that conform to a love they are familiar with or witnessed growing up.

Research by Dr. William Sywnn at the University of Texas has even shown that “married people with negative self-views are more committed to a relationship if their spouses view them negatively.” This research indicates that our brains like consistent information and will search out mates that conform to our previously held beliefs, regardless of the quality of those past patterns. Sometimes one’s past history is helpful, however, as Spracklen admits, “my parents adore each other, have mutual hobbies, and are best friends so I never thought of not having that for myself.”

Overall, technology in our relationships can cause pain or positivity, sometimes creating miscommunication while at other moments helping us foster close connections. The attention of others in the digital world can be addicting and intoxicating, but if our primary point of contact is through telephones and not touch, our relationships will suffer.

Dating apps and smartphones promised us predictability and control over our interactions, but often this leads us to start viewing our partners as products for our consumption instead of people with feelings. Relationships with real humans are messy and complicated and that may be why Americans opt to spend an average of 7.5 hours per day interacting with a screen instead of talking to the person next to them. In the past, people married partners from their neighborhood or from work, mainly finding love where they spent the majority of their time. So it makes sense that in today’s society we would look to our screens to give us what we desire most.

However, as people opt to find love online, they risk spending more time becoming closer to their machines than to each other, forgetting that technology should be viewed as a tool not a talisman that can fulfill your every wish. Oftentimes with craned necks and dead eyes, we hide from each other behind airbrushed versions of ourselves swiping our way through life in a fog of visual noise, missing out on the genuine laughter and vulnerable euphoria that comes with building a story together in real life relationships.

The online world’s relentless communication, love and relationship experts argue, may allow us to never feel alone, but it can lead to a new type of solitude, where we live with the illusion of connection without the security of earned intimacy.  PJH

About Ryan Burke

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