Tinder and evolutionary psychology: The science behind what men and women swipe for, and why

If we apply the evolutionary theory to the way people use Tinder, we find that differences emerge because the traits that are sought by men and women are quite different, especially in short-term relationships

Arathy Puthillam November 29, 2018 15:20:04 IST
Tinder and evolutionary psychology: The science behind what men and women swipe for, and why

If Shakespeare were alive right now, he would definitely approve of Tinder. In his first sonnet, he urges us to stop being gluttonous and start reproducing, lest beauty’s rose perishes. He would definitely have a thing or two to say about young people using Tinder for fun.

While online dating has been around for as long as the internet, it never really caught on till much later — think how revolutionary the movie You’ve Got Mail was. In the 1990s, 40 percent of couples in the US met through friends, and about 20 percent met in bars, in 2000, 10 percent had met their partners on the internet, and by 2010 about 25 percent had. Between 2005 and 2012, more than one-third of couples who got married in the US met through online dating sites. Nearly 70 percent of LGBTQ+ couples meet online.

Online dating is also picking up in (urban) India, with a majority preferring it over other means to find partners. India is expected to be one of the fastest growing markets for online dating apps like Tinder, which launched in India in 2016. 55 percent of the 1,500 Indians surveyed between 20-30 years of age in 10 urban pockets said that they had used a dating app for casual dating, and meaningful, but non-traditional relationships. 20 percent of respondents said they looked for longer-term relationships. Most of them preferred using dating sites to find their partners in private, over other means like matrimonial websites, which may be used by parents.

Tinder and evolutionary psychology The science behind what men and women swipe for and why

Illustration by Namaah K. Copyright Namaah K for Firstpost

Tinder, however, is notorious for being a ‘hook-up’ app. Many of its users look for short-term, casual, transient relationships (as opposed to long-term, monogamous relationships). Often men on
Tinder have the grievance that they do not ‘match’ with enough women, or even that they don’t have enough women to choose from in the first place, while women tend to be choosier when it comes to who they interact with. Concerns about safety and other disquieting incidents notwithstanding, we can apply the lens of evolutionary theory to understand this.

Essentially, this kind of a sex difference stems from a fundamental asymmetry in the minimum amount of parental investment required from each sex. That is, the resources devoted by males and females on any offspring they may have is different across species. Human males, at a minimum need to only invest their sperm, but human women need to invest at least nine months of pregnancy and an additional three-four months of lactation.

Because women need to invest more, they tend to be more selective and discriminative in choosing their partners.

Historically, women have been pressured by the quantity and quality of external resources and genes they can accrue from their sexual partners to ensure the survival of their offspring. In other words, by ensuring that their partners are healthy, and can easily provide for them (especially during child rearing), they maximise the probability of their child(ren)’s survival. In short-term relationships, they would then seek partners who have good quality genes, are resource-rich, and may potentially be a long-term mate. Physical attributes like facial symmetry, height, and a deeper voice are indicators of good health, while dominance might indicate their high social status. They also prefer men who display traits like benevolence and kindness, which are indicative of good parenting skills.

For men, since they are relatively free of the obligation of minimum parental investment, the challenge is to increase the number of women they mate with, to increase the number of offspring they have. For this, in the short-term, they need to find a large number of sexually accessible, fertile women with as little commitment and investment as possible (lower investment would imply more women). As a result, men also have lower standards than women when it comes to transient relationships, compared to long-term relationships, where both sexes look for a similar higher standard. For instance, when an attractive male and female approach strangers of the opposite sex on a college campus, 50 percent of women and men consented for a date. Only 6 percent of women, compared to 69 percent of men consented for an invitation to go back to their apartment. None of the women agreed to having sex, but 75 percent of the men acquiesced. Women are often also more disgusted by the idea of having sex with strangers as they are more attuned to (and prone to) sexually transmitted diseases. Besides, because cues indicating fertility are physical, men value physical attraction in women — we may even say what is judged to be attractive in the opposite sex are the qualities that signal fertility.

These trends are evident in what straight men and women look for on Tinder. For instance, men comprise 90 percent of Tinder users in India, which displays their preference for transient relationships. According to Tinder India, women swiped right on men with creative professions like acting, creative writing, entrepreneurs, and photography, but also on marketing managers, architects, and business consultants. Creativity is a marker of good genes, and hence, women often prefer creative (even if poor) men in the context of transient relationships. On the other hand, for longer term relationships, women prefer traits like dependability and stability, because they often translate to financial stability. In an earlier survey, women who were attractive were of interest to over 30 percent men, consistent with what has been examined about men so far — physical attractiveness in women is a cue for fertility.

For non-binary people, the picture is irresolute. Due to an overall stigma associated with them — not to mention legal issues — not much work has been done on this subject. Gay men’s online dating profiles are similar to that of straight men, with them being more likely to describe their physique, state their interest in casual sexual encounters, and request this information from potential partners. They were also more likely to disclose their preference for casual encounters. They listed attractiveness as an important trait in their potential partners, and were also likely to reveal their income, and were interested in others who were wealthier. In other words, they signalled traits which heterosexual women find desirable, and in equal measure sought partners in a fashion similar to that of straight women.

Compared to straight women, lesbian women were more likely to advertise their own wealth and their expectations of their potential partner’s wealth. They were also more likely (than gay men) to emphasise their personality traits at the cost of physical descriptions. They were more likely to seek and rate attractiveness as extremely important in their short-term partners. However, there is still a long way to go in understanding what non-binary (including those who are transgender) individuals seek in short and long-term relationships. Such data is unavailable in the context of Indian Tinder, and hence I cannot comment on it. Perhaps the recent Supreme Court ruling would open up more discussion and analysis of what non-binary individuals pursue — are gay men more likely to be similar to straight men, or are they more likely to be like straight women?

Does all this mean that straight women are money-hungry and straight men are shallow? Not necessarily.

The explanations provided here (and in the evolutionary sciences) only explicate why, and not how it should be. In fact, men or women have no conscious awareness of these processes; these were the best possible solutions to problems faced by our ancestors, who had to ensure that their traits were passed on for the survival of the species. We are only trying to steer our prehistoric brains in a modern world.

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai, India. She tweets at @WallflowerBlack

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