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Online Dating during COVID-19

By Gery C. Karantzas, PhD

online dating COVID19

I’ve been increasingly contacted by the media on all aspects of relationships related to COVID-19. Needless to say, people want to know how to go about developing and maintain relationships during a time of social distancing and isolation. One popular issue I’ve been asked to talk about is “dating” during COVID-19, yes, “online dating”! The interest in questions about online dating has been spurred on by the statistics released by Tinder and other dating apps sprucing 10-15% in useage from February to March as well as increases in messages sent (DW, 2020). For those social dating apps that have in-app calls functions, the length of conversations has also spiked in recent weeks.

There are various takes on the issue of online dating during COVID-19. Some see it as a real opportunity to “connect” with someone while others see it as the chance to get off the dating merry-go-round. Then there are others who are quite unsure as to what to do; how does one go about pursuing a connection if it means that a physical meeting may not occur for weeks, if not months?

Before discussing online dating during a time of COVID-19, let’s put things into context. Although online dating has become the most popular way to enter the dating scene, the success rate of online dating is nothing to “shout from the rooftops”. Although statistics regarding the success rates of online dating sites and social dating apps is somewhat sketchy, across various sources (data published by dating sites themselves, market and consumer research, national surveys, and scientific studies) it appears that the chances of finding a partner online is no better than about one-third; the conversion to a long-term relationship such as marriage is less than 10%. For social dating apps such as Tinder, the success of finding a match that converts into a relationship is even lower – 10% for women and .06% for men (Tyson et al., 2016).

But why such low success rates if there are so many potential matches online; and many within a person’s close vicinity? Well, there are a number of reasons that I’ll briefly outline here.

A large pool of potential partners doesn’t make finding a match any easier. It just involves more information to process, more profiles to view, and the sheer volume can have a person either not pay much attention to profiles or become paralyzed, if not overwhelmed, by the sheer number potential matches (de Vaus, 2008; Finkel et al., 2012). For these reasons people either don’t make the best decisions when seeking out a match or don’t commit to a match.

Trying to develop a first impression about someone by way of a profile is a lot like reading someone’s resume. The resume doesn’t tell you the whole story about the person, and it’s certainly hard to get a sense of how the potential partner will interact with you face-to-face (Finkel et al., 2012). In fact, most of the information that is communicated between people is non-verbal (Hwang & Frank, 2016), meaning their facial expression, body language, vocal tone, pauses when speaking and alike, can tell you a lot about someone. So it’s actually hard to get an accurate first impression about some people from their profiles. Because of this, there is a chance that a likely match flies through the radar.  

Many sites and apps use algorithms to assist with helping people find matches. But the problem with these is that the formulae can rely on variables that don’t always do such a good job at predicting a match. These algorithms rely too much on factors such as similarity and complementarity, but modern science around these factors suggests we shouldn’t put as much emphasis on these things. Also, the algorithms assume people have good insight and are being truthful when responding (whether it be about their personality, likes, relationship goals, or swiping behaviour). If people aren’t clear or truthful about intentions, or have a good sense about who they are and what they value in a partner, then these algorithms are unlikely to be helpful in supporting a person to find a match.

Finally, interacting with a potential match is heavily driven towards messaging in the early stages of making a connection. Although this can be good initially, doing this for too long can be a real problem as people start to question why the communication hasn’t moved to a proper conversation or actual meeting. Staying in this messaging phase for too long can also increase the chance of messages being misinterpreted and the development of false expectations about someone (Finkel et al., 2012).

So what we probably have is two sets of forces that are hurting people’s chances of making a connection in the online dating world. First are the dating sites and apps themselves. The dating apps make assumptions about the drivers of attraction that are not as important as once thought. Also, up until recently, the opportunity to reach out and have a proper discussion with someone wasn’t straightforward. It typically doesn’t start with a conversation; it starts with a fact-checking exercise by way of people’s profiles, then using computer mediated communication to seek out a match, then some messaging, and so on… The point is the there is an indirect line between interest in someone and conversation – people have to make their way through a bunch of intermediate steps before a conversation takes place.

Second, is the users themselves. Typically, judgements are made (sometimes prematurely) because of the way dating profiles are evaluated and the sheer number of profiles that people look at. The high volume of profiles, and quick swiping/clicking away from profiles, means that people (potential connections) can be objectified and profiles are mindlessly perused without any understanding of whether someone may be a good match. For others, the sheer volume of choice is paralyzing or overwhelming, and if on the receiving end of rejection, the quest is abandoned to limit further hurt and disappointment. When a match is made and a connection is pursued, it often crashes and burns as people spend too much time engaging in computer mediated communication through text and alike. In the process, humour and flirtiness wane; and people begin to ask questions such as “what is this person’s intention?..” “Do they really want to meet?”

COVID-19 is a potential game changer for the dating world – but not in a new way. It’s what I call “back to the future”. In days gone by, the notion that you would seek out multiple potential matches at the same time and go out on multiple dates was not the norm. In today’s dating world this is far more common – the drive to meet and to test the physical and emotional chemistry amongst a number of suitors is a powerful force for some, if not, many. But once upon a time, accessibility to dozens, if not hundreds, of potential mates was not an option. You would meet someone, either on a night out, in a workplace, or at college. And often, this occurred through a friend, family member or acquaintance. Although some dates may have felt like a waste of time, you took the opportunity to chat to someone, learn about them and develop an attraction not only by what they said, but by what they didn’t say; their emotional expression, body language, social etiquette, values and alike.

Well, in the current climate, we are somewhat back to this way of seeking out connections. Yes, the pool is larger than yester-year, and we still scan dating profiles. But with the pressure of face-to-face meeting taken off the table, people have the opportunity to take the time to speak to a potential mate, pay more attention and concentrate on what they are saying and who they are, rather than being distracted because of who else one is trying to meet at a given time. Some are referring to the notion that you pay attention and have a proper conversation with a potential mate as “mindful dating”. As an Associate Professor in Psychology who has studied relationship for nearly 20 years now, I’ve heard it all. So the term “mindful dating” has little meaning for me, and it certainly doesn’t reflect a new and revolutionary way of dating. There is nothing new to taking the time to have proper conversations with people to find out if it may be worth going on a date with them. It’s just not what is typical in the online dating world. Rather, people are distracted, chasing multiple opportunities, and often having a single chat instead of having with multiple conversations with a particular someone in the hope that a connection may develop. With the stress of meeting someone on hold, there is time to have multiple conversations with a person; there is freedom to shift from messaging to talking because a physical meeting is not on the table. And as I noted, in the past, people met first, chatted as part of a first meeting, and possibly had a few subsequent meetings before deciding on whether this was something to pursue. People invested time, effort, and resources into developing a connection with a potential partner. In fact, these are three key features (time, effort, and resources) are important in predicting a person’s relationship commitment. Ask yourself, how does the sea of choice and the instant messaging afforded by dating apps foster a commitment to finding a real connection?

Well, in this uncertain world, bring certainty to your approach to dating. Take the time to slow down when it comes to reviewing profiles, reduce the number of profiles viewed, and take the opportunity to talk with those you wish to pursue by phone and video chat. You never know what may come of this.

But is this “slowing down” the only way forward in an online dating world. The answer is no, if one is feeling tired of the pursuit, tired of the rejection, or has been looking for that reduction in social pressure to keep dating, well then this is certainly the time to take a breath. Remember that human connection can be fulfilled in many ways, and the current context provides an opportunity to consolidate or strengthen relationships with family and friends. These existing relationships may have possibly fallen away due to the pursuit of a romantic partner, or, because life is so busy that the opportunity to nurture some connections is challenging.

Alternatively, this time provides an opportunity to reflect on the “dating pursuit.” Maybe it’s a time to revisit what one wants in a partner; has this changed for you, have priorities of what matters in a partner altered, is now the right time to date, is it a time to pursue aspects of self-development that brings clarity around future dating pursuits?” These are all legitimate questions to ask oneself during a dating hiatus. For those of you interested in taking a survey on what you are looking for in that special someone, then click here – it may be the start of new self-discovery.