Hookup, lie and stinker

How Dating apps are rewiring our brains, thereby altering our bodies and behaviour

Why do people join dating apps? To find a romantic partner? For casual hookups? A rebound relationship? Plain distraction? Or, to fill some gaping void?

I had good conversations and the men I met were all decent. No one acted like a creep or a stalker. My husband was the third guy I spoke to and met. —Sreejita Basu
I met a married man who wanted BDSM; I met a lesbian faking to be a man; I have been asked to pay for sex on these apps and I have been told to do drugs. —Arjun Chandra
When I resisted, he fished out a knife. That day I lost Rs4,000 and an expensive watch. I could not call for security, fearing my identity as a gay man would be revealed. —Abhishek Ghosh

For 35-year-old Sreejita Basu, a Delhi-based communications professional in the development sector, it was simply a sense of curiosity to see what was out there. While waiting for a Delhi-bound train to arrive at Pushkar station at the end of her solo trip in May 2018, Basu downloaded OkCupid on a whim. She had heard her friends rave and rant about apps like Tinder and OkCupid. But after Basu's long relationship had ended in 2016, she did not take recourse to a dating app like a painkiller or a heart replacement therapy. Instead, she took a year and a half off to coast around on her own, quietly recovering in the company of people, places and things that gave her joy. So when she finally did download a dating app for the first time, Basu did not want, need or expect anything to happen. “I had good conversations and the men I met were all decent. No one acted like a creep or a stalker. My husband was the third guy I spoke to and met,” recalled Basu, who married Saurav in a lockdown wedding in November 2020. “I spent a good deal of time focusing on my life. And the apps worked more like a confidence booster before I met the right one.” Her age with its attendant wisdom in priority-setting also helped her attract the right person, she added.

Sreejita Basu | Sanjay Ahlawat Sreejita Basu | Sanjay Ahlawat

Basu's happy happenstance on a popular dating app, however, is hardly the norm. Of the several respondents THE WEEK spoke with to gauge levels of satisfaction on dating apps, more than 80 per cent attested to being unhappy, tired, cynical or sad. The pandemic surely added wings to online dating. According to research firm Sensor Tower, use of Tinder, Bumble and Hinge together grew by 17 per cent in January 2022 when compared to 2019, and first-time downloads grew from 91 million in 2019 to 106.4 million in 2021. Research will also tell you how more and more parents now approve of their children finding partners on dating apps. But precious little has been studied to understand the negative health impact born out of a culture of “choice overload”, “over abundance”, and “unlimited swipes” that dating apps engender. And how it breeds a “rejection mindset”, leading to swipe fatigue and dating burnout. A 2019 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that more profiles, more searching, more scrutiny and a reluctant satisfaction with the final choice has often led people to gradually “close off” to mating opportunities.

Arjun Chandra (in black, with his partner) | Arvind Jain Arjun Chandra (in black, with his partner) | Arvind Jain

In the March 2022 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Body Image, the authors of a paper titled ‘Love Me Tinder: The Effects of Women’s Lifetime Dating App Use On Daily Body Dissatisfaction, Disordered Eating Urges, And Negative Mood’ paint an unflattering image of mate-selection strategy via dating apps, which kicks off an endless cycle of hope and hurt. One-third of the participants from close to 300 women from age 18 to 48 offered a link between lifetime dating app usage and daily urges for binge-eating or purging and negative mood.

Abhishek Ghosh | Salil Bera Abhishek Ghosh | Salil Bera

The reason why we are quoting research from the west is because it has wisened up to the ways in which dating has ushered in a strange anti-utopia for seekers of romantic or real human connections. Dating is something we have imported from the west (especially with the coming of Tinder), like several other lifestyle choices. And while we can only be thankful that these apps exist in the way it allows us encounters worth remembering, few are talking about the way it affects our brains, bodies and behavioural patterns with prolonged use.

“I call it Big Dating because it’s like Big Pharma in the sense that they’re more interested in selling you pills than curing what’s really wrong with you,” said Nancy Jo Sales in a Vox interview last year for her memoir—Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno. “Dating happens 24/7 now, whereas there used to be times when we dated,” she said.

Sraboni Bhaduri, a Delhi-based psychologist, said that dating apps work more like “arranged marriages on steroids”, in the way it perpetuates a highly evaluative culture, with women and people from the LGBTQIA+ spectrum facing its worst pitfalls. “Our societal structure is a disaster right now,” she said. “People are not meeting each other situationally or running into each other the way they used to. Work is remote or hybrid, there is hardly any catching up over drinks after work or hanging out without an agenda. Normal friend circles are disrupted. And then dating apps make you market yourself in a way that you get chosen by someone on the basis of pictures and profiles. What does that do to your self-worth? It is a recipe for disaster, heightening feelings of stress, anxiety, loneliness. The very problem it seeks to solve is intensified.” Most people join dating apps at a moment of crisis in their lives, said Bhaduri, when something is not going right or one wants to break out of a toxic thread for a fresh start. “Women who are not so conventionally attractive will go out of their comfort zone to keep a date going,” she said. “They give in to men who might simply be predators. The result is a lot of casual, unprotected sex. These inexperienced, idiotic sexual encounters usually end up quite badly, including transmission of diseases. I know of cases, for both heterosexual and gay couples, where a bout of app-facilitated rough sex needed urgent medical attention.”

For women in smaller, tier-2 cities, matches do not go beyond a few chats. Antara Jha from Ranchi got on Tinder and Bumble to look for a like-minded friend after her marriage fell through the cracks. “But I would only come across men who wanted to know your ‘stats’; they would keep insisting on meeting without forming any connections,” said Jha, who then switched to an app for extramarital affairs to find a friend.

Two years ago, Abhishek Ghosh, a 27-year-old art consultant from Kolkata, was exceedingly happy to have landed in Delhi for work. Always keen on finding a job in Delhi, his short visit occasioned several networking opportunities. “I was also hoping to find better quality matches on Grindr (a social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people). The dating pool for queer men in Kolkata leaves much to be desired,” said Ghosh, who continued to chat with matches in Delhi without intending to really meet anyone. He was happy socialising with friends and industry folks and spending his evenings exploring the city’s dining scene. But on the last day of his stay, he couldn’t resist and invited a rather good-looking man he had been chatting with to his boutique hotel in south Delhi. “I really wasn’t expecting him to show up on such short notice,” said Ghosh. “But he did and rang the bell in my room. When I opened the door, I found a completely different man who did not look like anything in the profile picture. He was middle-aged with a paunch and an unshaven face. He tried to forcefully enter my room. When I resisted, he fished out a knife from his pocket. That day I lost the 04,000 I had in my wallet and an expensive watch I was wearing. I could not call for security, fearing my identity as a gay man would be revealed to everyone in the hotel.” Ghosh left for a meeting with a client with a straight face immediately after. Back in Kolkata, he couldn't sleep for weeks before he sought help from a therapist and friends.

While dating applications have been a boon for same-sex couples in the way it allows exploration of intimacies in complete privacy, it can also be a bewildering, terrifying ride. Arjun Chandra, an advertising professional in Gurugram, found his partner on Hinge after years of trial and error on dating apps. He lists the number of ways he has been shortchanged. “I met a married man who wanted to have some serious BDSM style sex; another time I met a lesbian faking to be a man so that she could marry me and we both could live our own lives once married; the number of times I have been asked to pay for sex on these apps and the number of times I have been told to do drugs,” recalled Chandra. The way these social apps allow us to be whoever we want to be always acts as a double-edged sword, he said.

Informal dating relationships which end abruptly without any intimation, explanation or closure is called ghosting. It has variations like icing, simmering and bread-crumbing—all pointing towards sporadic, intermittent interest and disappearance. Ghosting is the most commonly cruel aspect of dating apps. Seema Hingorani, a Mumbai-based psychologist and relationship expert, said the lack of closure that comes with ghosting has become a bane of existence for young dating individuals. It goes on to trigger traumatic memories of childhood experiences and related attachment injuries. “Repeated ghosting can lead to a unregulated nervous system, where one loses control over their emotions—they can't focus at work or sleep at night, they don't eat well and have bad headaches,” she explained. “I had a client who literally had large chunks of hair falling off her head because of the stress that came with not being able to find the right match or running into people who could not commit.” The only protection one can have, according to Hingorani, is to be mindful of red flags from the start, because they are always there. “And you need to decide if you are looking for a date or a parent on these apps. Because parental issues and subsequent flawed belief systems from childhood first need to be resolved with a therapist,” she said.

Debanjan Banerjee, consultant psychiatrist, Apollo Hospitals, said that to understand how dating app addiction exactly affects the brain, we need three types of investigation. It can be obtained either through imaging—CT or MRI—or we need a neurophysiological study to measure blood pressure and heart rate variability, or an electroencephalogram (EEG) to track sweating and adrenaline rush. All of this entails putting electrodes on to an individual in a controlled environment which will violate the privacy one requires to form an emotional or intimate connection. And that is an obvious bias. But there is, in fact, sketchy data on how the gamification of dating apps gives us the unexpected, dopamine hit, said Banerjee, formerly with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS). “There is an unpredictable reward in dating apps. So that unpredictability can actually hit your brain with a significant amount of adrenaline and dopamine,” he said. “So if someone is suddenly using, let's say Tinder, when they are sad or lonely or just bored, and they find something even for a few days, the experience is like a vodka shot or a snort of cocaine. This unpredictable hit to the brain is the same as a rapid rush of substance when the reward pathways of our brains are activated.”

Banerjee pointed to a recent study done at the Donders Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging in The Netherlands on the science behind brain activity while using Tinder. It specifically situates all the action in nucleus accumbens, an area in the brain which is most actively engaged in reward processing, especially while flipping through attractive faces. And the paper argues that the principle on which Tinder really operates is much like a casino slot machine. “Because you never know when you will hit the jackpot or when it will be a loss,” noted the paper.

Shreya Banerjee, a 32-year-old research professional, logged out of dating apps just before the pandemic started. Disappointed and disheartened, she reached out to old friends, family members and neighbours for shooting the breeze. “I didn't want to make cursory connections or flirt on apps,” she said. She continues to meet people the more old-fashioned way. But she knows there is no way out of apps. “Can you really blame the intention of technology for bringing people together?,” she asks. “We live in an unhealthy age where no one owes each other anything, be it an apology, an explanation or a decent farewell. The apps can add multiple filters to offer the perfect match, but how will they regulate human nature?”