Relationshopping: Why Dating Apps Lead to Choice Overload

Does online dating feel more like a game and less like a process of finding your right person? Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains why having too many choices in your dating apps may actually lead you to be less satisfied in your resulting relationships.

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #34
The Quick And Dirty

People who are presented with more potential partners report experiencing choice overload, which means they are overwhelmed, can barely process the information, and ultimately, feel less satisfied in their resulting relationships. If you're looking for "the one," spend more time with each person as a person, and not just another option in an app.

Using apps and online dating sites can be both an exciting and daunting experience. The next swipe or profile you look at might be just the person for you! But looking through so many profiles can also be overwhelming.

It seems counterintuitive, but too many choices may leave us less satisfied with the choices we make. We may feel that having more options means that we are eventually bound to find the “perfect” person. Ultimately, we should be feeling more confident about the decisions we make and the person we end up with since we will have seen and interacted with more “less-than-perfect” people. However, having more options may actually be more cognitively and emotionally taxing, leaving us unsatisfied in the end.

This phenomenon is what researchers call the choice overload effect. This is when people feel less satisfied with the choices they ultimately make when presented with too many options up front. Originally, work on the choice overload effect was done in marketing and consumer behavior. For example, showing options for consumer products like jam or other things you can buy at a grocery store. They found that people are more satisfied with their choice when they have fewer options, when they saw 6 types of jam instead of 25 types of jam. 

Researchers thought a similar phenomenon might happen in online dating. In the world of online dating, swiping on an app has made it so that we treat potential dating partners like an item on the shelf. They have a personalized ad, with a few taglines about who they are, and a few pictures of what they have to offer you. In light of all of my options today, which ad meets my needs? This commodification of people has been called “relationshopping” and it can be problematic.

Problems with “relationshopping”

Researchers have found that individuals who are presented with more options:

  • Are more willing to change their mind. When people are just one profile in a sea of many other profiles, online daters are more likely to view potential partners as more replaceable. This may open the door to less positive dating behaviors, such as ghosting, when a potential partner doesn’t meet expectations.  

  • Are less satisfied with their choices. We tend to idealize people when we meet online. We set lofty goals for finding our one true love online, and with so many options, it feels inevitable that that person is just a few more swipes away. This sets the stage for us to be less satisfied when we meet people in person and start talking to them. All partners have some flaws, and online dating can perpetuate this desire to find that “perfect person,” even though there is no such thing—everyone has something.

  • Will sift through more profiles, but spend less time looking at each one. Dating in-person usually involves spending a little more time getting to know a person. Online dating gives you thousands of people in your area that you can mindlessly swipe though. We start to de-personalize what should be a very personal process by treating people like just another option.

Individuals who are presented with a greater number of available potential partners report experiencing choice overload, which encompasses feelings of being distracted by the excessive number of potential partners available, being overwhelmed by the number of potential partners, and feeling that, after seeing so many potential partners, they can barely process the information

What is Ghosting, and Why Do People Do It?

Why are people less satisfied with their choice when they have more options? 

Researchers have considered four explanations for why people may be less satisfied with more choices:

  1. Regret. After swiping through so many options, and maybe having some fizzled out conversations with a few people, we may start to feel regret over previous choices we’ve made. This can make us feel less enthusiastic about continuing in our search for love online.

  2. The cognitive burden of so many choices. Swiping and looking through many profiles takes a lot of time and energy to think about and compare your options, which potentially leads to frustration and being less satisfied when you do make a choice.

  3. Having to justify your choice. For instance, having to explain your partner choice compared to other potential partners you could have introduced your family and friends to may be overwhelming or others may think you could have made a better choice.

  4. Counterfactual thinking—a.k.a. that “what if” type thinking. After you choose someone and commit to them (whether that be a single date or something more long-term), you may consider your alternatives - the other potential partners waiting for you online. Thinking about different partners you could be seeing instead may lead you to be less satisfied with your current partner because you believe there are better options out there for you.

What does this mean for how you approach online dating?

If you are really serious about finding a long-term partner, you may want to consider reducing your choices, either through filters on the site or app you are using, such as by reducing your location radius or age bracket, or selecting a site or app that does some of the reduction for you through their algorithm.

Consider swiping in small stints to avoid being dismissive of your options. Give yourself permission to not make swiping a game—treat each person as a potential new partner and try giving people a chance. Be patient and remember that there is no such thing as a person who is perfect!

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

Do you have a question for the Relationship Doctor podcast? You can leave a voice message for the show by calling (813) 397-8165 or send an email to relationshipdoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You might hear your question on a future episode.