File photo: If you’ve ever used a dating app (or any social platform, for that matter) you’ll know how easy it can be to fall down the rabbit hole only to emerge hours later with no idea where the time went. Picture: AP

London - Singles around the world are being bombarded with promises from dating apps that will help them find lasting love. 

Yet the question we should be asking is whether such apps are actually helping us in our search for love and sex, or whether they’re simply feeding an addiction likely to result in neither. 

If you’ve ever used a dating app (or any social platform, for that matter) you’ll know how easy it can be to fall down the rabbit hole only to emerge hours later with no idea where the time went. Whether you’re looking for a hot date, a hookup or something more serious, the tech you use to get you there is generally designed with one goal in mind: to keep you coming back for more. For the businesses that develop these apps, achieving this kind of habitual and sustained use is the holy grail, not least because the data they stand to gain from such engagement can be significant.

So how do they maximise their haul? Well, as if the prospect of hundreds of beautiful, mysterious dates aren’t enough to get people hooked, designers have become increasingly wise as to which levers they can pull to make that swipe (and the next, and the next…) simply irresistible. If you’re familiar with dating, gaming or gambling, you will likely have a rather keen appreciation for some of the more exhilarating effects that the neurochemical dopamine can elicit. First identified in the 1950s by two Swedish researchers, dopamine is often described as the brain’s reward chemical due to its role in our pleasure seeking behaviours. When we’re hunting out new, exciting and even risky experiences, dopamine’s often involved in that sense of wanting that urges us forward.

In ordinary circumstances, this might not amount to much. Yet researchers in the field of persuasive technology have found ways to fine-tune these mechanics so as to elicit tiny, instant, unpredictable patterns of reward, the very kind that send us into loops of repetitive activity. 

The trick isn’t simply that the reward isn’t quite satisfying (the novelty of a match or a message soon wears off), rather, since we become conditioned to expect a possible reward for playing the game, we soon become swept up in the act of seeking, which becomes a reward in itself. Of course, the hit rapidly wears off, and so the next time we receive a trigger (the ping or buzz of a notification) we’re primed and ready to go, knowing that another, bigger hit may be just around the corner if only we keep going for long enough.

It’s not just the chemistry that makes these apps so seductive – it’s also the fact that seeking a date in the real world can be complex and unpredictable. One of the biggest, most daunting issues that technology professes to solve, is the amount of time, effort and attention we expend making difficult decisions. When it comes to dating, although it may feel like we’re getting a better deal in-app, we are in fact losing vast amounts of important information that we would otherwise gain if meeting someone face to face. Sure, it may feel easier to flick through a few Photoshopped images and a couple of straplines than meet offline, but by simplifying the variables in such a way, we’re potentially missing out on vital clues that could make finding the right match so much clearer. In a set-up where variety and novelty is abundant, and finding someone new and exciting for a hookup or date feels like it’s on tap, it’s no wonder so many people find it hard to pull away.

Instead of resigning yourself unthinkingly to your app, take a moment to ask whether it’s really working for you. If you feel like you’re stuck in a world of swiping and you’d like some relief, fear not, there are a few things you can do. 

Firstly, get out of the chemical cage – remove the external triggers by turning off your notifications. Secondly, if you want the hit or you enjoy the experience of the chase but don’t want to be dominated by it, you can limit yourself to (for instance) 10 swipes a day. This typically works best in the morning, as studies show that our ability to make good choices diminishes as the day wears on (known as decision fatigue). 

Finally, if you really can’t do either and you feel like you’re powerless to resist its siren call, I hesitate to say it, but delete your app. Your love life might just thank you for it.

* Nathalie Nahai is the author of Webs Of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion