It’s 2030. The apps on your phone will decide who and when you date. The attractiveness of the person you are assigned will be dependent on how many sponsored messages you agree to watch first. Real-time algorithms will send dating advice during your meal. Genetic matching will choose the length and intensity of your interaction. Memories of bad dates will be wiped from your mind with ‘after-date’ service packs. Non-disclosure agreements will be sent to every potential date, ensuring they cannot tell their friends or family about any negative interactions.
Is this the future of dating? Are we destined to enter an era of algorithmic romance, where invisible codes will dictate who we pair with? Where the investment in looking for a partner is so minimal, will no one ever be able to form a long-term relationship again?
Well, first, let’s rewind to the present. Look around you. See those men? Yes, that guy there, and the other guy over there, and those two at the bar. Guess what they’re doing? They’re checking their phones. Whereas in the past, they would be checking out the women actually present in the bar, they are now also checking out women who are nowhere to be seen.
And it’s not just men taking part in this digitised dance. Women do it to, and the result is a generation utterly confused about what it means to have a relationship.
Never has it been easier to meet members of the opposite sex without the anxiety of intimacy. Never has it been easier to have a relationship with someone without ever meeting them in daylight hours, or while sober. With apps such as Tinder and Happn and sites such as OkCupid and Plenty Of Fish, it’s easier than ever to meet the man or woman of your dreams via your phone.
If you were to tell someone even a decade ago about this state of affairs, it would seem almost unimaginably strange. Imagine going to a restaurant and browsing another restaurant’s menus while you waited for your food to arrive. Or going on holiday to Spain and spending your time by the pool reading brochures about France. What happens when we have too much choice?
In Robert Wright’s seminal book The Moral Animal, he puts forward a theory why men are more promiscuous than women. Put simply, it’s because men have less investment in child rearing than women have.
At nine months, the human pregnancy is one of the longest in the animal kingdom, and the human female is one of the most monogamous. This partly explains why men are less monogamous than women: they don’t get pregnant.
While the nature of female pregnancy has not changed in the past million years, the environment we live in has changed utterly. Even 50 years ago it would be impossible to imagine the dating sites and apps that now dominate the romantic landscape.
Ten thousand years ago you were unlikely to meet a member of the opposite sex outside your tribe. Hit on the wrong person and you could just spark an inter-tribal war. And even within the tribe, there was a strict hierarchy, with the leader having his pick of the women, and the rest of the men fighting over who was left.
Some psychologists use this to explain why men still get nervous when approaching a strange female; the chance of death is remote, but our brains haven’t evolved as much as our environment has.
It is little wonder, then, that apps such as Tinder have become so popular. Swiping right on a person you find attractive is far less nerve-wracking than approaching that same person in a bar, or – heaven forbid – a bookstore.
The investment in today’s digital age, for both men and women, is minimal. Should you decide to meet someone for a drink, and you don’t hit it off immediately, there’s no motivation to do anything but say ‘next’ and move on to the next swipe.
And even if the first date does go well, the fear of missing out (or FOMO, as the kids say) can ensure you’re constantly wondering what else is out there, mere centimetres away on your phone. While in the past, a lack of available partners would ensure young men treated the women they were seeing as a priority, the modern abundance of potential partners means it’s easy to ‘next’ anyone that doesn’t live up to often-impossible standards.
David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who specialises in the evolution of human sexuality, was quoted at length in a recent Vanity Fair article commenting about Tinder. “Apps such as Tinder and OkCupid give people the impression that there are thousands or millions of potential mates out there,” Buss said. “One dimension of this is the impact it has on men’s psychology. When there is a surplus of women, or a perceived surplus of women, the whole mating system tends to shift towards short-term dating. Marriages become unstable. Divorces increase. Men don’t have to commit, so they pursue a short-term mating strategy. Men are making that shift, and women are forced to go along with it in order to mate at all.”
A dating apocalypse
That Vanity Fair article went on to describe Tinder as part of a ‘dating apocalypse,’ which, for all its hyperbole, has a ring of truth to it.
Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, told the magazine; “There have been two major transitions in heterosexual mating in the last four million years.
“The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the internet.”
Tinder, of course, was not happy with the article. It responded: “Tinder creates experiences. We create connections that otherwise would never had been made. Eight billion of them to date, in fact. The ability to meet people outside of your closed circle in this world is an immensely powerful thing.”
Tinder had a point. ‘Hook-up’ culture has existed in the West far longer than the life span of the Internet. The idea that Tinder is the saviour of the human race (check out its self-serving tweets) is equally bizarre. But maybe, just maybe, the more choice we have, the more our expectations spiral out of control, and the more we end up disappointed in the choice we have made.
Maybe a marriage of convenience is the way to go. It would save an awful lot of hassle, heartbreak and regret, and, surely, the idea of a ‘soul mate’ is wishful thinking in the extreme?
Men vs women
Are we wired to ‘pair bond’ or have these apps just enabled us to live as we want – skipping from partner to partner, safe in the knowledge that there are plenty more fish in the sea?
By ‘we’ I mean men. Women, traditionally look for a long-term mate because it serves their interests. Raising children is time-consuming and expensive and a lot harder without a father present.
Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists argue that men, on the other hand, are wired to spread their genes as far and wide as possible – they have no investment after conception (from a biological point of view) and hence are more promiscuous than females.
Standing the test of time
So what does this all mean for the future of how people date, fall in love and marry? Marriage, for all its faults, has endured – and despite rising divorce rates (around 35 per cent of marriages in the US end in divorce) it’s hard to see marriage as an institution ever dying out.
Some American researchers have argued the only difference between a man who cheats and a man who doesn’t is opportunity. While this may be a grim view, perhaps it does contain a grain of truth. And if the opportunities are now more abundant than ever, what does that mean for the modern woman, and relationships in general?
The truth is probably more prosaic than any hyberbolic-laden headline – be honest with what you are looking for, be honest with yourself and others and, maybe, the whole dating minefield might be one that leads to happiness, rather than regrets.
For all the ‘Tinderisation’ of dating culture has brought, falling in love is still as beautiful as ever. And no matter how technologically advanced our society gets, that will never change. It might not be easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.
A woman’s view: 5 ways to tell if he’s not serious
If you’ve been having a hard time on the singles scene then finally meet a five-star kind of guy, chances are that your sense of relief – coupled with excitement about where this romance might lead – will blind you to critical clues that he’s not as serious about you. Sophia Ledingham, psychologist and author of The Date Night Manifesto, tells us to watch out for the following five signs:
1 Withdrawn body language A man who is serious about you will tend to lean in when you talk, and hold eye contact. Both reactions are subconscious signs of curiosity and Casanova would have vouched for that as a positive. An interested guy will also mirror your body language, so examine posture. Danger signs will be crossed arms, leaning back and distracted eye movements (but do check that he isn’t cold or in need of the loo).
2 On the outside Do you know his nearest and dearest? A key sign of someone who is thinking long term will be that he’s taken opportunities to introduce you to family and colleagues. Being invited to accompany him to work events and private occasions are indications that you’ve broken through to the inside - the all important we-could-have-potential zone. Clearly it’s a mistake to think you can break through within a few weeks of dating, though. Spot the clues: if, after a while, he’s going to his sister’s wedding and not taking you, chances are he’s not your long-term mate.
3 Last-minute dates Are your meet-up arrangements always last minute? Spontaneity’s great but if he’s serious about you, he’ll do some planning ahead too. He’ll be securing you for a weekend date early in the week, because he genuinely doesn’t want to miss the chance to spend time with you. If there’s a pattern of him only calling on a Friday to meet up that evening, chances are you’re not his highest priority – or even his first choice for a date. Also, watch out for the guy who only ever dates you mid-week. You should be wondering; who gets his weekends?
4 Second-rate dates Does he make a concerted effort for your dates? If he is just taking you to a local sports bar to watch football, chances are he’s not really thinking about you. You’re looking for evidence of thoughtfulness. Has he tidied himself up? Made a bit of an effort? Does he take time to compliment you? A keen man will be referencing earlier conversations, proving that he is attentive to you. You’re on to a good one when, for example, you’ve mentioned you lived in China and he then searches out the best Chinese restaurant or take-away in town.
5 Separate holidays Are holiday plans on the horizon? When both people are serious about each other, then you’ll find joint vacation plans naturally arise. All going well, your “I love skiing in the spring” will be followed up by his “It would be great to see some snow… let’s arrange a trip”. Happy days. If, however, he talks about spring being good for a fishing tour with his buddies, you might need to rethink this relationship. Again, if you’ve only been dating a few weeks, don’t start planning holidays; you might scare him off!