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Don’t be picky and forget chemistry: A guide to succeeding on Tinder, according to the app’s scientific adviser

Anthropologist Helen Fisher has been researching love for decades. For nearly 20 years, she has also been working to understand the importance of the internet in romantic relationships

Anthropologist Helen Fisher, scientific advisor to dating apps, in New York.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher, scientific advisor to dating apps, in New York.cordon press
Jordi Pérez Colomé

It happened two days before Christmas in 2005. “Nothing ever happens in New York two days before Christmas,” says anthropologist and biologist Helen Fisher, 77. But she received a call from the Match Group, an internet and technology company that owns and operates the largest global portfolio of popular online dating services, including Tinder,Hinge and OkCupid. She was summoned to an urgent meeting. “I went up to the [office of the] president, and they wanted to know why someone falls in love with one person and not another,” she says. “At the time I told them, ‘I have no idea.’” But it got Fisher thinking.

Clearly, status, beliefs, and upbringing play a role. But, she thought, there must also be something genetic. So, she created a test to distinguish among four personality types: explorer, manager, negotiator and builder. Each is associated with a specific neurotransmitter or hormone. “It is the only [test] in the world based on biology and validated by two experiments on the brain,” she told EL PAÍS by videoconference from New York. Around the world, millions of people have taken the test, and it gave Match’s method some scientific reasoning. Fisher insisted that a retired Princeton University geneticist recently told her that her test “is the only one that works.”

Since then, Fisher has been a scientific advisor to Match, although she is not familiar with the apps and their algorithms. She doesn’t know how the app chooses the profiles it shows its users. But since 2010, she has used her data to put out an annual survey called Singles in the US, which gathers responses from 5,000 people. She’s also been in the industry long enough to be called “one of the most quoted love experts” and “the world’s most-quoted scientist on the biology and chemistry of love.” Although a search for “Helen Fisher love” yields 28 million results on Google, Fisher has “no idea” where these claims come from. However, she says that “when journalists call to talk about love, they have a lot of psychologists [to choose from], but I’m the only anthropological neuroscientist they have.”

Her experience and research allow her to contextualize the relative importance of dating apps. She explains that the apps have barely changed love. Fisher shares three basic dating ideas about the real impact of dating apps. One: “They’re just a new way of doing something that our brains have been doing forever: a million years ago we did it at a well in the desert; now, [we do it] over the internet.” Two: “All these psychologists who say that apps make dating much different are ridiculous; I don’t understand how people are so afraid of new technologies.” And three: “They shouldn’t be called dating apps; they should be called introduction [or meeting] apps” to downplay their importance.

Still, Fisher offers some tricks for better using dating apps. Read on for her tips.

1. Don’t date too much; get to know between five to nine people

“I have a lot of people who tell me, ‘I went on 30 dates in a month and didn’t find anyone,’” said Fisher. “Well, that’s why you didn’t find someone: you’re drowning in dates. Our brains aren’t wired to choose from more than nine options,” she added. Going on too many dates means having to make too many choices, and in the end the person doesn’t stick with anyone.

She explained that “you have to meet [dates] in person. It’s not just chat, email or phone conversation. The human brain is designed to look at the whole body, the substance, the smile, the hesitation.”

2. After that, step away from the dating app for a while

After seeing five, six or seven people, it’s time to walk away from the app for a while. Don’t look for more possibilities. “If you really want to get to know someone, get off the site and get to know at least one of those people better, because psychological data shows that the more you get to know someone, the more you like them,” Fisher said.

“You may meet people who are clearly not for you, because they’re 40 years older or because they’re too big or too small, or they do something you don’t find respectable. But after you’ve met nine people in your range, get off the app. Don’t even stand off to the side and look, get off it,” Fisher advised.

3. Don’t be picky and learn to say yes

You already have a handful of reasonable people you might want to see more of. Now it’s even harder: you have to learn to say yes. “People today are too picky. Think of reasons to say yes instead of no.” There’s a biological reason for that, Fisher noted: “There’s a huge region of the brain that I’ve studied that’s linked to what we call negativity bias. We remember the negative, and for millions of years that was adaptive. If you forgot who your enemies were, you could die.”

But now you have to give people more of a chance or, at least, give them a little more leeway: “You go into these apps, and you have a little information about other profiles. And you’ll say ‘oh, he likes cats,’ ‘he likes dogs,’ or ‘he likes golf and I like tennis,’ ‘he goes to his grandmother’s house every Sunday night, and I don’t want to.’ And then you say no [to them],” Fisher pointed out.

Of course, you shouldn’t always say yes. But Fisher says that it’s better to be open-minded: “Most people look for love at first sight or [whether or not they] have chemistry. Forget it! Keep seeing someone who is charming and fun.”

Fisher gives examples from her own life. She got married last year. It’s worth noting that when she is flirting, Fisher says things like, “I study love. When you start to fall in love, you contribute to the brain circuit of attachment – are you willing to take that risk?” In 2015, her then-suitor said yes.

Obviously, the couple took her test, and they match: they’re both explorers. But there are things that annoy her husband more. “We were going to dinner in the Bronx. I wanted to cross a flowerbed and he said I couldn’t step on the grass. And I’m like, ‘There’s no grass, there hasn’t been grass there in 25 years, it’s just dirt.’ And he said, ‘Let’s not step on the grass,’” remembered Fisher. Fisher used this anecdote to explain a theory: “In the US, we’re all steeped in psychology. It’s all our childhood’s fault, you’re a victim, when in fact 50% of the variations are genetic. He didn’t want to walk on the grass because he wanted to follow the rules. I’m not like that. But you have to learn. He is who he is, and when you realize that, then you don’t blame anyone, and you take advantage of it. The way he is, he’s also probably going to be faithful to me. It’s a very fruitful way to get along [with someone],” she explained.

4. Don’t worry too much. This is how dating is today; it has changed

40% of first dates are arranged on the Internet, Fisher’s figures show. Dating apps are getting far less bad press, thanks in part to the work of scientists like her. “At first, the internet was for losers. And then we moved to a sense of ‘well, it’s fine, it’s just not for me.’ And now in the US we’ve evolved to ‘well, I’m going to try it too,’” Fisher said. She added that “it’s normal even in universities.”

The brain and love haven’t changed. But flirting has; it now includes liking an Instagram story, sending a quick WhatsApp message, using a perfect emoji and sharing a song on Spotify. Fisher pointed out that such methods are not all that different from those used in the past: “I was reading a Dickens novel recently, and they sent little daily notes; couriers must have been going nonstop in London in 1800.”

In addition to new everyday ways of flirting, Fisher also believes that another underlying, less technological change has occurred during our own era: “What’s really new is that women have entered the job market. The growth of the two-income family has changed the way we flirt, but it doesn’t change love itself.”

The increase in video-dating may have influenced some of these changes as well. “It helps to assess candidates, then you have fewer first dates and [feel] more comfortable,” Fisher said. “During a video-date, sex is off the table, and the couple doesn’t have to deal with what dinner costs, either. It turns out that people who use those video chats say they have more meaningful conversations, more transparency, more honesty, more disclosures. They’re more interested in financial stability than in appearance,” she added.

5. People are looking for sex less than you might think

But what about all those who are seeking sex? Fisher is certain that younger people (“of reproductive age”) are having less sex than ever. However, she doesn’t have a conclusive answer as to whether apps enable more sex compared to other generations. “I think so,” she said.

Fisher has given quite a bit of thought to younger people’s concept of friends with benefits: “It’s a very descriptive term; [young people] are very analytical. 34% of singles have had sex with someone before a first serious date. Older people will think it’s crazy, but I think it’s a sexual interview.” Apparently, it’s another way to get to know someone better.

Perhaps such “interviews” cause young people to have fewer sporadic one-night stands. Of the latter, Fisher said that “men are three times more likely to have a fling in the hopes that it will turn into a relationship. No one believes me. I’ve said for 40 years that men fall in love more often, faster. They want to introduce the other person to friends and family sooner. They want to move in [together] sooner than women,” she explained.

6. People who meet on apps get divorced less often

Fisher wanted to test something she had seen in a scientific paper from the University of Chicago in her own annual studies: people who meet online divorce less often than couples who meet in real life. What difference could there be between the internet and a bar, an airport or a church?

“Since we have 60,000 respondents, it was very easy to analyze a sample and compare couples who dated online with those who didn’t…It turned out that people who used [dating] apps were much more likely to have a job [and] a higher [level of] education, and to be looking for a long-term commitment,” she said.

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