All of us who have dated online have had a little concern, or worse, a gnawing doubt about the person we were communicating with. Is this person who she claims to be? Am I safe to disclose any kind of personal information? Am I safe meeting her (or him)? This heightened sense of uncertainty that we may feel when browsing profiles, or communicating with other users on an online dating website is caused by the potential for deception built into the very nature of our online personas. As the popular Catfish series illustrates well, how we present online may be extremely different from who we are offline, and the process of discovery can be quite traumatic.
So, what do we daters do when we are uncertain? If enough “breadcrumbs” about the other person are available, we may look for additional information. But is it true that we always want more information before opening to someone, and that not knowing makes us uncomfortable, no matter what? Or may there be cases when we consider uncertainty under a favorable light? One dating application that seemed particularly interesting to consider when asking these questions was Grindr, an all-male dating application best-known as a “hook-up” app that facilitates encounters among males seeking other males. The app, launched by Joel Simkhai, is geolocation-based, and it allows its users to locate other users by relative proximity, and thus meet easily if they want to.
Because of its use and its features, Grindr could be a place where the common dater’s concerns about safety, identity, and health are heightened. Anonymous users can have a close encounter with a total stranger in a very short time, and without much previous interaction to probe into the other person’s motives, daters could easily worry about the risks and potentially negative outcomes of a meeting. Also, even if the app promises to ensure the users’ privacy, researchers have shown that daters who use the app can actually be tracked. This potentially poses additional threats to users’ safety, and in turn lead daters to desire to know as much as possible about the people they plan to meet.
However, uncertainty could also be considered conducive to a dater’s goals. A first study conducted in our research lab at Wayne State University had already shown that Grindr users had more reasons for using the app than the common “hook-up” stereotype would suggest (for a comparison between Grindr and Tinder as hook-up apps, click here). On Grindr, daters are looking not just for sex, but also for friendship, and for long-term relationships, among other things. So, what people are looking for on Grindr – their goals - could affect the way they feel about being uncertain about a person or an encounter.
Our study confirmed that both concerns and goals do play a role in people’s responses to “not knowing.” Grindr users were most concerned about breaches in their virtual privacy, about the possibility that other daters had described themselves in deceptive or inaccurate ways, and that they had misrepresented their health status. This latter concern is especially relevant for men who seek sex with other men because of the greater incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in that community. The more concerned daters were about these three “unknowns,” the less uncertainty they desired. Consequently, they searched for additional information to reduce it.
At the same time, an opposite dynamic was at play. Grindr users who were looking for sex desired more uncertainty, rather than less, and accordingly they also sought less information about other daters. In other words, when daters only wanted a sexual encounter, they preferred to know less, rather than more.
Why would this be the case? We reasoned that when daters are only interested in sex, the other person’s motives and goals are less relevant, and so daters may be comfortable not knowing a lot. If sex is the only thing at stake, how important is it to know whether the other person has good career prospects and a good sense of humor? Whether they have kids or are currently in a relationship?
Daters may also be aware of the limits of any information search they may conduct. Is it really possible to ascertain that any given encounter with a total stranger won’t be dangerous? Probably not. In this case, not searching for information and remaining uncertain may be a way to keep some peace of mind, rather than obsessing over nightmarish scenarios.
Finally, risk in and of itself may be rewarding. Although this may not be true for all daters, the risky nature of sexual intimacy with a stranger may be appealing to some, and thus explain why some people would want to be more uncertain, rather than more certain.
Whether these mechanisms also hold true for the online dating population at large remains to be seen, although it is certainly plausible. Meanwhile, think about it next time you evaluate somebody’s profile and decide if you want to chat or meet with that person. How much uncertainty do YOU desire?