Why Decade-Old Dating Apps Can't Beat Half a Billion Years of Brain Evolution

By Alan Martin on at

It may seem like an age since you decided to test the waters with a Tinder account in 2012, but in the great scheme of human evolution, the app – and indeed, every other dating app – is embryonic. And while profiles may have evolved from long, self-indulgent prose to hilariously unrepresentative pictures to be swiped away like an irritating fruit fly, they’re no match for the way our brains have evolved to filter out the incompatible.

That’s the view of evolutionary anthropologist Dr Anna Machin, who recently gave a Fever talk that should be food for thought on that most cynically commercialised of holidays, Valentine’s Day.

She’s not against dating apps by any means, but her years of research make it pretty clear that they certainly have limitations, no matter what promises the companies themselves may shout about. “You are stopping your brain from doing what it's supposed to do, and our brains don't evolve quickly enough to integrate apps into the way we mate,” she explains.

Essentially, you’re ditching milenia of brain evolution for something app developers kicked up in a few years. “Our brains are these amazing dating machines,” she explains. “We've had at least half a billion years of evolution to tune them into being incredibly good at assessing whether they're the person for you.”

Her message is simple: “No online dating company is ever going to build an algorithm as good as your brain.” Which may come as a disappointment to those of you who have made some patchy relationship decisions in the past.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

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But let’s back up a bit, because it’s important to establish what the brain does when you meet a potential partner. “Love is wonderful at the very basic level because it releases the most amazing set of neurochemicals in your brain,” she explains. That’s Oxytocin to quieten the amygdala, chilling you out and lowering your relationship-building inhibitions, and dopamine to give you positive vibes for doing so.

“The research that we're doing is starting to find that the reason why evolution sees fit to make sure every element of your being is involved in you being in love is because it's so critical: it is the most important thing,” she continues. “The nature of the relationships you have - not only with your lover, but with your friends and your family - is the most important factor in your health, happiness and life satisfaction."

So it’s a big deal, before we even get onto the biological imperative to take things to the bedroom. But whether you plan to have children or not, how you choose who you’re attracted to is intrinsically linked to that biological goal, Machin says.

This means that all the signals of attraction for heterosexual men and women alike are based on the ability to make babies – and not just any babies: successful, strong ones that can survive and thrive. That means that for most men, they’re subconsciously looking for signs of fertility, health and fidelity. Why fidelity? “Because if he is going to give up his opportunity of mating on the open market, he wants to make damned sure that the woman he's with is going to A) be able to get pregnant, B) be able to live and raise that child and C) not going to get pregnant by anyone else."

For women, the criteria are different – provision, protection and commitment – but the biological logic behind them is the same. “If you are going to burden yourself with getting pregnant, which is energetically hugely taxing and costly for a woman, and then raise that child, you need for that person to stick around and provide for you and your baby,” she says.

Fine, but what about people who are just looking for short-term relationships, with no plans to mate for life like those grumpy, grumpy macaroni penguins? Even then, the question of hypothetical offspring is still the figurative elephant in the room. “If we're talking about a short-term relationship, then for a woman genes become absolutely paramount because that's all you are going to get,” Machin explains. “So how someone looks is absolutely critical, because that tells us a hell of a lot about the value of those genes.”

I know a lot of you will be finding this makes for uncomfortable reading. Machin is aware of this too: “At this point, people in the audience are possibly looking around and thinking ‘well that doesn't sound very feminist’ – and it's not,” she tells the crowd. “For something as ingrained as mating behaviour to change, we need practically the whole population of the world following feminist principals.”

“Even if we get an incredibly financially successful, independent woman, we actually tend to find that she still looks for a man that has that provision and that protection, even though she could achieve that by herself.”

That also applies to those who subscribe to the childfree life goal, which isn’t really surprising if you think about how ingrained this behaviour is. I mentioned earlier that our evolution hasn’t caught up with dating apps, but it’s also a long way from factoring contraception into its equations.

Sight and sound and smell, oh my

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So how do we make these judgements? This is where apps fall down because there’s only so much you can tell from some ridiculously filtered photos and the sentiment that they enjoy “going out and staying in.”

The first is, obviously, sight. Men are subconsciously judging women on their waist-hip ratio (0.7 is the ideal, which Machin points out is not stick thin – Marilyn Monroe was a 0.7, apparently), while women are looking for a shoulder-waist ratio as close to 1.4 as possible (“the classic triangle”). The reasons, once again, are biological: a 0.7 waist-hip ratio suggests fertility and good health in a woman, while a 1.4 shoulder-hip ratio suggests testosterone and dominance in a man.

But the face is also important, because the closer you are to perfect facial symmetry, the stronger your genes are likely to be. That’s because a prospective mate interprets your near perfect symmetry as a sign that your genes were strong enough to get through nine months in the womb without disturbance. Don’t worry if your face isn’t symmetrical though – as Machin points out, “nobody is perfectly symmetrical and, to be honest, if you saw a purely symmetrical person it'd really freak you out.” But closer is better.

Then there’s sound. You might be familiar with this one already: women tend to like deeper voices, while men like a higher pitch. If you hear a male friend on a date sounding a touch lower than usual, then you can bet your bottom dollar they’re subconsciously trying to make a good impression. That or you’ve caught them at a bad time, and they’re doing an ill-advised impression of Barry White.

But if your looks and voice don’t match the ideal, all isn’t lost. Hearing is also about the words – particularly humour in men. Being funny requires quick thinking, which demonstrates a great degree of cognitive flexibility, which once again suggests good genes.

Then there’s smell. Or for women, there is anyway. Yes, females have a super power, and it’s being able to smell genetic compatibility. “There's a set of genes known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) which underpin your immune system, but also your olfactory system,” Machin explains. “Women are capable of smelling how compatible a man's major histocompatibility complex genes are with her own.” 

Here, opposites really do attract. Different MHC genes means a future child will likely be better at fighting off infection. You may have seen this in the infamous sweaty tee-shirt experiment:

The jury is still out on how this affects gay men and women, by the way. For now, the research is both limited and inconclusive.

Punching above your weight?

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That’s great and all, but if everybody is judging by the same criteria, doesn’t that mean there are certain people who are, to quote Jerry Seinfeld, “undateable”?

Apparently not, and that’s thanks to something Machin calls ‘Mate Value.’ “We spend a lot of time calculating what everybody's Mate Value is,” she says, but concedes that doesn’t mean we’re “necessarily very good at calculating our own” which is why “we sometimes try to punch above our weight.”

Despite this, generally speaking, we “assortatively mate”, which is a posh way of saying that most couples that last are well matched in terms of their value.

“Ultimately people tend to end up in relationships with people of similar Mate Values to themselves,” she explains. “If you're in a relationship with somebody who is of higher value than you, that tends to lead to a bit of instability.” That’s both because the higher value person is subconsciously keeping their options open, and the lower value person will likely feel insecure. Neither are ideal for a lasting relationship, which in turn makes the biological imperative shakey.

Ultimately though, it’s in your interests to be objective and truthful about your Mate Value is, because it’ll make you more successful on the dating scene.

“Ah,” you might be thinking, “but what about hobgoblins dating supermodels?” The disappointing answer is that they too are playing by the Mate Value playbook. “Because she is bringing youth and fertility, which is ultimately what evolution sees as being of paramount importance if you're a female, and he's bringing lots of money and resources and protection."

“Obviously it varies throughout your life – unfortunately for women as you get older it tends to drop, and for men it tends to go up”, for all the reasons outlined above.

“Men in their 40s and early 50s have very high Mate Value generally because they generally have higher social standing than young men. Because they've been in their career long enough to have established themselves, it tends to be the peak resource time for them,” Machin explains. “That's why you sometimes see the pattern of young men going out with older women, because they're actually of equal Mate Value.”

In pursuit of App-iness

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If you’ve been following all of this and you’re a jaded user of dating apps and websites, you’ll already have joined the dots to see why they’re missing something. You’re hobbling your brain by not allowing it access to the full picture from your first-hand senses.

And yes, you can eyeball things like facial symmetry and waist- to shoulder/hip ratio by pictures, but as anybody who has forced themselves into the Uncanny Valley via overzealous selfie filters will know, they’re not always representative. And that’s just scratching the surface of how dating apps have developed “new ways of screwing with your mind.” We’ve had to come up with whole new terms for unpleasant 21st century dating behaviour – ghosting, shadowing, breadcrumbing, catfishing, kitten fishing, zombieing, Tindstagramming: a whole new lexicon of ways to be a jerk to our fellow humans.

And that’s not to mention the main problem – our brains aren’t really evolved for social media, as Dr Machin made clear when I interviewed her at our sister site TechRadar. In the world of online dating, this manifests itself in the paradox of choice.

To illustrate this, Machin uses the example of a toddler in a sweet shop. Offer the kid the choice of two sweets, and they’ll pick one with minimal fuss. Offer them anything in the store, however, and you’ll unleash the mother of all tantrums “because they literally cannot conceive of making that decision”.

“And even though most of us are hopefully past the stage of having tantrums, it still happens when we look at online dating apps. There is so much choice that sometimes we get to a complete paralysis and actually don't do anything at all because it's just too difficult to decide.”

This can manifest itself in giving up looking (understandable for women of high Mate Values who are inundated with thousands of messages per day), perpetual messaging back and forth without ever meeting, or barely giving people a chance when you do meet for fear of missing something better. The adage “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” is as old as the hills, but never before have we been able to see exactly how many fish there are in a five-mile radius, complete with a full biography of their likes and dislikes. It doesn’t focus the brain at all.

Let your brain take over

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Despite this, as I said earlier on, Machin isn’t warning people not to use apps. They have plenty of great qualities from offering a huge pool of potential matches, to being low-cost and 24/7. The trick is knowing how to use them right.

“They help you find a pool of people who hopefully have something in common with you and are reasonably close,” she says. “And that's really it.

“They have huge benefits, but there is nothing more powerful than getting in a room with somebody. So what I say to people is 'use them as an introduction, but try and be strict with yourself.' Do not spend weeks and weeks WhatsApping with somebody more and more intensely because, ultimately, you could be having a conversation with someone's cat."

In other words, get in that room and meet that cat/human face to face. “You are then going to get the hit of neurochemistry to help you out! It's there to give you a leg up, to make you better at this game, so you've got to be in the room to do that. While you might get a dopamine hit from finding a match, you ain't getting anything else."

Wise words for anybody looking to salvage a date (or something more) this Valentine’s Day.

Featured image: Kon Karampelas on Unsplash