Tinder hookups displace hookups that are more likely to lead to relationships?

[epistemic status: completely unverified hypothesis straight out of my ass. Many of these “facts” are subjective impressions that may turn out to be just untrue. Very sloppy fact checking.]

According to the Atlantic, we’re currently in the midst of a sex recession. Fewer people are having sex, and those that are are having less of it, in comparison to previous decades.

Furthermore, it looks to me that many in my generation are not on track to have kids and raise a family. [Note: that might be totally false. For one thing, people are marrying and having kids later, so maybe I just need to wait a half decade. There are articles saying that the birthrate is falling, but just eyeballing the graph, it looks like it has been hovering around 2 births per woman since 1972.]

I have the impression that fewer romantic pairings are happening. Fewer people are ending up in romantic relationships. Why might that be?

In a word, Tinder.

In 2012, Tinder was launched, and by the mid 2010s it had reached fixation. I posit that maybe swipe-based mobile apps had a number of large scale societal impacts that we’re just starting to see. Namely, that hook-up pairings that result from tinder like apps, are less likely to lead to long term relationships.

Pairing with people in your local social context increases the foder for a robust long term relationship

Before tinder, people hooked up with people in their local social environment: you met people in your dorm, or in the classes you were taking, or at your workplace, or in a bar, or at a party, or through friends.

But it seems that the popularity of tinder-like apps must have displaced at least some of that activity. Now, if you want to hook up, you’re more likely to do it via an app.

I would guess that if you hook up with someone who lives in the same dorm as you, that hookup is much more likely to transition to an ongoing relationship. If you’re hooking up with someone that you’ve already interacted with a good deal, there’s the possibility of being attracted to a partner on the basis of attributes like shared interests, or positive character traits like generosity or humor. In contrast, on Tinder, approximately the only criteria for mate-evaluation are 1) looks (as embodied in a photo) and 2) chat game.

Hooking up with someone that you like from your interactions with them seems much more likely to lead to a long term relationship, compared to hooking up with someone almost solely on the basis of their photo. Having met in person, the two of you are more likely to share a lot of common context (similar interests, overlapping social group, similar priorities), which can turn a recurring hookup into an actual relationship.

Heavy power laws of sexual success push against relationships

Secondly, tinder aggravates a power law distribution of male sexual success. There have always been “Chads”, who were particularly attractive to women. Men are, in general, less discriminating about sexual partners than women are, so those men would have casual sex with many partners. Many women are pairing with a few men, resulting in a sex-pairings graph with a small number of super-connectors, and a larger number of unconnected or loosely connected nodes (less attractive-to-women men, who are having much less sex than the population average).

However, I suspect that tinder-like apps further consolidate that distribution of sexual success.

Tinder has a much larger pool to filter than in-person context. Women, flipping through tinder, can choose to mach with only the very most attractive guys. In contrast, if they were going to a bar to hook up, they would, at best, be able to hook up with only the most attractive guy at that particular bar. And even then, only one woman at a bar could pair with the most attractive man at that bar at any given time, whereas on Tinder, a very successful guy could match with multiple women in a day, and have sex with all of them in sequence.

Hookups with highly sexually-successful chads seem unlikely to transition to long term relationships, because for those men, the opportunity cost of monogamy is much larger.

Additionally, even if those men do want to transition to a long-term relationship, they would only do it with (approximately) one out of hundreds of women. So, for most women hooking up with a hyper-sexually-successful man, the likelihood of that hookup transitioning into a relationship is very low.

Which means that tinder allows women, as a whole, to hook up with the same number of men as women 2 decades ago, and on average, their partners are more attractive to them, but less likely to pair-bond with them in a long term relationship.

Since the transaction costs for having sex are lower when you’re already in a relationship, fewer people ending up in relationships means that there is less sex happening overall. And fewer relationships means fewer people getting married and having kids.

Some predictions that this model makes and other hypotheses


  • We should see that the power-law of sexual success for men has moved to be closer to winner-take-all since 2012. More men are having no sex or close to no sex, but the men who are having a lot of sex are having more of it than their peers-from-the-previous-cohort (is there a words for this?).
  • Fewer hookups are happening via the “traditional channels”
    • As a corollary of this, men must either be asking women out in person less, or women must be saying “yes” (to sex, if not to dates) less, or both.

Everything that I’m saying here is also compatible with the hypothesis:

“Most men and women mostly aim for casual sex in their 20s, and steer toward looking for longer term relationships and marriage partners in their 30s. Tinder has all of these impacts in the first phase, but doesn’t influence the second phase much.”

This is possible, I suppose, but given the common trope of couples that met in college, it seem like over the past 50 years, long term committed relationships have evolved from more casual relationships, which I think often start as hookups.

This tweet from the author of a paper about how people meet their partners does seem to match this story.

It looks like online dating is displacing “meeting through friends”, “meeting through / as coworkers”, and “meeting in college.”