On the paradox of choice, Tinder

Feb. 26, 2020, 6:44 p.m.

Of all the things to learn in an intro psychology class, I didn’t think the connection between a jar of jam and my dislike for Tinder would be one of them. And yet, as I listened with rapt attention from the back row of the PSYCH 1 lecture hall, the pieces began to come together.

The way I learned it, the jam study went as follows. Researchers set up two different “jam stand” conditions at a grocery store: one in which the stand advertised a great variety of jam flavors to pick from, and another that presented only a few. In the former condition, customers flocked to the jam stand, intrigued by the sheer amount of options. But the researchers found something funny. When there were more choices, the customers were less likely to actually make a purchase, despite showing more initial interest. And when they did make a purchase, compared to the condition in which there were fewer flavors to choose from, they ended up less satisfied with their final decision. This study illustrates a phenomenon that has been dubbed “the paradox of choice.”

Sitting in the back of that classroom, it was a paradox that sounded awfully familiar. I nudged my friend, sitting beside me. 

“It’s kinda like Tinder, don’t you think?” 

The words had come out of my mouth facetiously; I’d barely had time to register what I was saying. But, to my surprise, my friend didn’t laugh. Instead, she nodded thoughtfully.

“You’re right,” she agreed. “It really is like Tinder.”

Just two months earlier, I’d been sitting cross-legged on the questionably stained floor of a one-room double, preparing for the onset of cuffing season by crowdsourcing my very first Tinder bio. 

“It’s gotta be a joke,” one friend insisted.

“Make it ‘Roast me,’” another countered.

In the end, I settled for no bio at all, hoping my lack of creativity could hide under the guise of mystery. After all, to me Tinder was nothing more than my own version of the proverbial post-breakup haircut; I was only four days out of an eight-month relationship (an overenthusiastic return-to-play timeframe, to be sure), and downloading the app was my way of shedding skin. 

In those first few weeks, using Tinder gave me a feeling I’d never quite experienced before. Having all of those options at my fingertips was gratifying, freeing. It was powerful. In the real world, I saw the people around me as ambiguous and self-involved — in short, unavailable. On Tinder, it was different. The lines were clear: this one likes EDM — not my type; this one’s bio reads “what it do, baby” — also not my type; this one uses Oxford commas — most definitely not my type. I swiped left without discretion; behind each imperfect profile was the potential of another, perhaps one that would better suit my fancy. I found myself wishing I’d discovered the wonderful world of college singledom earlier — who ever said it was boring? Who ever said it was hard, or scary? There were fish in the sea, all right, and I was having the time of my life catching them.

This was the peak of my Tinder experience, the beautiful view from the top of a steep, steep hill. At the top of that hill, it didn’t matter if I sent the first message and it went unanswered. It didn’t matter if the boy I’d been eyeing from across the lecture hall ghosted me after a two-message exchange, if that guy from my freshman dorm swiped left, if every conversation was a dead end or a 3 a.m. “u up?”

And though I tried to convince myself that the rejections didn’t matter, as I began the painful descent down my own perilous hill of self-deception, it became abundantly clear. They did matter. They mattered a lot.

The experiences I thought of as “failures” — the ghostings, the unanswered messages, the rejections — they mattered so much because they were real. Each and every one took down the skeleton of a reality I’d constructed where picking a new person was as simple and as inconsequential as picking a new pair of shoes. Each failure made it ever-clearer that I was somehow abiding by two parallel, and starkly contrasting, world views.

In one of those worlds, my options were endless and replaceable, and I was invincible. In the other, I was grasping desperately for a connection with another human being, mortally wounded by the loss of nuance in my relationships. As my two worlds came dangerously close to convergence, I realized how awestruck I had been by the sheer number of jam jars at my table.

With every new match, my connection with each of the previous felt less special, each person seeming like a sporadic collection of parts. Here was their bio, and their favorite song, and there was their face, and that one time they caught an abnormally large fish — and then what? What made them different from the next? What made me different from the next? The seemingly infinite supply of options allowed me to care less, to distance myself, to treat people like items in an online shopping cart. And as a result, I found myself deeply unhappy with all of it.

Unlike Tinder, real life is not an infinite supply of interested people or the near-instant gratification of swipes and matches. Real life is investing valuable time into mutually-enriching relationships. Real life is choosing the people you spend time with intentionally. It is not juggling 20 shallow conversations at once, not fake-laughing at the same unoriginal pickup line seven times, not absent-mindedly swiping while waiting for a squat rack, or while sitting in class.

Perhaps Tinder itself is not to blame. Perhaps it was my own fault for ignoring who I had always been, for shutting down that creative, imaginative part of me that met a new person and placed them squarely in my life.

Regardless, what really matters is that, when we buy into the illusion of bottomless choice that Tinder offers us, we’re helping to create a culture of depersonalization. It’s a culture where it is okay to drop people like flies, not necessarily because we don’t want them anymore, but simply because we can when there is someone else waiting to replace them.
That’s why I raised my hand in class that day when the professor asked for examples of overchoice. Despite the laughs my response garnered, in the words rang an undeniable truth.

I walked home from class that day with that truth ringing in my ears. On the same stained floor of my friend’s dorm room where the adventure had begun, I deleted my Tinder app, watching that pink backdrop wiggle until I pressed the ‘X’ with a rigid finality. 

In truth, erasing the app may not have been the answer. It may not have stopped me from eventually redownloading it (only to erase it again), or from lamenting my newfound boredom (what am I supposed to do now while waiting for a rack?). Maybe getting rid of the app didn’t rid me of the disillusionment or the disappointment. But even if just for a moment, in the midst of a world teeming with choices, saying goodbye to Tinder was something I had to do. 

After all that time and all those jars of jam, I’d finally made a choice that tasted sweet.

Contact Larissa Bersh at lbersh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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