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Dating Apps and Mating Strategies

New research investigates why people use "hook-up" apps.

Source: Mimagephotography/Shutterstock

The days of internet dating being seen as a niche pursuit of the desperate and lonely are—thankfully—far behind us. Dating apps are now mainstream, especially among the young, with a quarter of American 18- to 24-year-olds reporting having used a dating app at some point.

But what motivates us to look for love on a dating app? This is an especially interesting question to consider because although much of the stigma associated with internet dating has diminished, there is still a perception that apps are primarily used to facilitate hookups, or that they're geared toward those with a promiscuous short-term mating strategy. The 2015 hacking of Ashley Madison, a dating website aimed at people seeking an affair, revealed that the number of female users was minuscule: Ashley Madison is hardly Tinder or Bumble, but is there a short-term and stereotypically male strategy that drives dating app use?

A Male Strategy?

Evolutionary psychologists have often emphasized sex differences in their study of human mating behavior. This is because of a highly influential theory first proposed in the mid-1970s: Robert Trivers’ parental investment theory. This theory is pretty simple: When one sex is obliged to invest more in producing offspring, individuals belonging to that sex should be choosier about their mates. In our own species, women are obliged to invest more; to begin with, compare the size of the sperm and the egg (the egg is the only human cell visible without a microscope), and then stack up nine months of pregnancy followed by a long period of lactation against men’s “investment” in the process.

Parental investment theory suggests that men should be less choosy than women and more motivated to maximize their reproductive output (number of children) by mating with multiple partners. Women, on the other hand, can’t increase their number of offspring by sleeping with dozens of men. Once you’re pregnant, you’re pregnant.

Much research over the years has confirmed that generally speaking, men are more interested in uncommitted short-term relationships, while women are more interested in committed long-term relationships. But the key word here is “generally.” We all know committed men and uncommitted women. There may be a broad sex difference, but there are also substantial differences between people of the same gender.

These individual differences are captured by the concept of sociosexuality, measured by the Sociosexuality Orientation Index, or SOI for short. A person has an unrestricted sexuality if they desire, approve of, or actually have short-term relationships. And, of course, both men and women can have an unrestricted or a restricted sociosexuality (be OK or not OK with sleeping around).

Sociosexuality Versus Sex

Recently, a team of psychologists led by Lara Hallam of the University of Antwerp in Belgium decided to test whether sex or sociosexuality better predicted the use of dating apps.

Previous research had indicated that there are six distinct reasons people use dating apps: to look for love, to seek casual sex because it's an easy way to communicate, to validate their self-worth, for the excitement of it, and because it’s popular or trendy. Men are more likely to cite casual sex, easy communication, and excitement as motivators to use a dating app than women.

Hallam and her colleagues recruited approximately 250 straight men and women and had them complete the SOI. The volunteers also filled in a survey about their dating app use, based on the Tinder Motivations Scale (yes, psychologists have developed a psychometric instrument purely for measuring why people use Tinder). Hallam modified the survey so it referred to all kinds of dating apps, and not just Tinder.

The researchers found that people with an unrestricted (short-term) mating strategy tended to report using dating apps to find sex. More restricted people said they used dating apps to find love. An analysis that excluded sociosexuality showed that the volunteers’ gender did have an effect on their reasons for using apps. However, including sociosexuality in the mathematical mix obliterated the gender effect.

In other words, any previously identified effect of gender is better explained by differences in sociosexuality. Sociosexuality is more important than gender when we’re trying to explain why people fire up Tinder or stumble onto Bumble.

The scientists point out:

We live in an era where sex roles and gender roles are increasingly being questioned or challenged and documenting sex differences in general causes considerable debate. Scientists must also begin to take responsibility by not solely focusing on sex as an explanatory variable, but should also incorporate other significantly important variables, such as sociosexuality.


I’ve previously written about the importance of replication: that is, attempting to repeat scientific findings so that we can be confident that they are genuine.

How fortunate, then, that another team of researchers based at the University of Trondheim in Norway has also been investigating sociosexuality and dating app use. Their research paper was published almost simultaneously with Hallam’s, so this is less a case of premeditated replication than of great minds thinking alike (just like when Dreamworks and Pixar released Antz and A Bug’s Life in the same summer).

Ernst Botnen’s team had about 650 volunteers complete the SOI and another survey about their reasons for using picture-based dating apps such as Tinder (similar to the Tinder Motivations Survey, which I mentioned earlier).

Men and women reported having used their preferred dating apps for roughly the same amount of time, although women said they spent more time on the app, and men were more likely to approve (“swipe right”) another user and to meet up in real life with a matched user.

Botnen’s team also found that there were four main reasons people used dating apps: to seek sex, to seek a relationship, to feel good, or because they were bored. Some of these reasons map onto the six reasons I described earlier, but the list is not identical—the way these questions are asked can clearly affect the volunteers’ responses.

Men were more likely to use dating apps to seek sex, and women were more likely to use dating apps as a way to feel good. Men and women were equally likely to use dating apps to seek a relationship or because they were bored.

However, Botnen also found that an unrestricted sociosexuality predicted the use of dating apps, an effect that was independent of gender. The desire for sex was the primary motivator for using picture-based dating apps, with relationship-seeking a secondary motivator, so these apps may attract those who would otherwise be driven to seek hookups offline.

Botnen and his team conclude, "This new technology is merely a new arena for short-term sexual behavior, and not necessarily a facilitator of new sexual behaviors."

It’s Complicated

These studies show that online sexual strategies are every bit as complicated as our real-world love lives, and they caution against taking a simplistic approach in which gender is seen as the most important predictor of behavior. As digital dating becomes ever more popular, psychologists will have an unprecedented opportunity to gain insights into this aspect of our lives. Questions about the importance of gender will no doubt continue to yield interesting answers, but we mustn’t forget to attend to the other ways in which we can differ from — and be similar to — one another.


Botnen, E. O., Bendixen, M., Grøntvedt, T. V., & Kennair, L. E. O. (2018). Individual differences in sociosexuality predict picture-based mobile dating app use. Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 67–73. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.04.021

Hallam, L., De Backer, C. J. S., Fisher, M. L., & Walrave, M. (in press). Are sex differences in mating strategies overrated? Sociosexual orientation as a dominant predictor in online dating strategies. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806–018–0150-z

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