Players and Playas: The Game Theory of Online Dating

20 Aug

Online dating is renowned for just how efficiently it can open up a vast pool of potential partners. For this reason, dating apps are often downloaded for no more reason than to act as a ‘game’, a way to pass the time.

Online dating is renowned for just how efficiently it can open up a vast pool of potential partners. For this reason, dating apps are often downloaded for no more reason than to act as a ‘game’, a way to pass the time. In fact, until 2016, Tinder referred to itself as such: when a match occurred, users had the choice to either send a message or ‘keep playing’ (they are now invited instead to ‘keep swiping’ – a smart PR move, methinks).

One of the single greatest maxims of evolutionary psychology is Bateman’s principle, which dictates that men are less choosy than women when it comes to selecting short-term partners. This can be seen in how men and women choose to swipe on dating apps. Oftentimes, men actually forego choice altogether, simply swiping yes on every single user, without so much as a cursory glance (let us refer to this as ‘auto-swiping’). (For the more philosophically/nihilistically-inclined, I recommend Tender, a 2015 art piece of some meat attached to a motor and swiping on Tinder in perpetuum).

Game theory analyses mathematical models of cooperation and conflict between decision-making parties (‘players’ – not to be confused with the concept of the playa, however appropriate such a comparison may be). It originated as a method of constructing economic models, but has since been applied extensively in evolutionary biology. At the heart of the theory lies the mathematician John Nash (subject of the gorgeous 2001 film A Beautiful Mind) and his Nash equilibrium. The Nash equilibrium is a solution concept, utilised when neither of two players can gain an advantage from altering their strategy if their opponent doesn’t then change their own strategy in direct response. This may lead to both players pursuing strategies that do not optimise their own results per se, but do at least stop their opponent from gaining the upper hand.

The Nash equilibrium occurs naturally from the fact that, if either player is in a position where they would benefit by changing their strategy, then they will do so, because they are trying to win. Their opponent inevitably reacts, leading to an indefinite cycle of strategising and counter-strategising, until both players settle on strategies which would not benefit from being altered.

What on earth has this got to do with online dating?, I hear you weep. Well, fascinatingly, the Nash equilibrium manifests in human courtship strategies: the behaviours of one sex cyclically reinforce those of the other. This mathematical model thrusts the notion of dating apps as a ‘game’ into an entirely new – and literal – realm. By analysing dating apps through game theory, we find that men and women actually benefit from distinct swiping strategies.

As men are so much less choosy on dating apps, let us assume reasonably that a man auto-swipes at a rate of one profile a second. Only when a match occurs does he consider her profile and decide whether to start up a conversation. Crucially, then, the man only invests energy once she has swiped yes on him. Assume that considering a profile takes as little as two seconds (based on the reasonable assumption – in accordance with Bateman’s principle, that initially men are concerned primarily with physical attractiveness, so spend time only considering her pictures, not reading her bio). It follows, then, that the only scenario in which auto-swiping is not the optimal strategy for men is when they are matching so often that the time cost of considering every profile actually takes less time than does auto-swiping (which is unlikely for all but the most desirable lothario!). Conversely, a woman’s swiping behaviour is then reinforced: she knows she will likely match with any man on whom she swipes yes, and hence necessarily becomes much choosier in order to not waste her own time.

Game theory comes further into its own when we consider the premiums rolled out by various companies that stop affording non-premium users the opportunity to pursue an indefinite auto-swipe regime at zero cost to themselves (except in terms of their time). Premiums have meant that dating app users also have to consider the likelihood of their yes swipe being reciprocated (and it is important to note at this point that, premium or not, no swipes are always free). In the vernacular of game theory, dating apps represent an example of a normal-form game, a cost-benefit analysis of players’ decisions. A payoff matrix (below) can be constructed as a visual representation of the game.



The table represents a normal-form game between a man and a woman (for the sake of this example, they are both non-premium members), with payoffs and costs measured in terms of yes swipes (which the free services limits to a finite number per day). If he assumes that she will swipe no on him, he will obviously reciprocate so as to not lose a swipe. If, however, he assumes that she will swipe yes, he will generally do well to reciprocate, in order to create a match. This produces the two Nash equilibria, emboldened in the table. Game theory is about mind-reading: one player has to guess how the other player will play the game – then act accordingly. 

Dating app users who cite engaging in casual, short-term relationships as a reason for using the apps are less discriminate about whom they swipe yes on and less concerned with reading bios before deciding how to swipe. Both of these behaviours are entirely normal, and it is a wonderful thing to live in such a liberal society – but, as game theory so elegantly illuminates, dating apps are almost inherently unconducive to the formation of meaningful, long-term, loving relationships. Romance is so often grounded in the history between two partners: how they met; what they have been through together; their mutual friends and interests. Dating apps are arbitrary, random – and it is much harder to find love through them.

There is an alternative. Matchmaking is the polar opposite of online dating; it is everything that online dating is not. Matchmaking is personable, warm; your matchmaker gets to know you as an individual and delves deeply into what you want, need, desire, what you value and what you ultimately aspire to in a relationship. At The Vida Consultancy, our matchmakers personally scour our extensive, exclusive network of some of the world’s most exceptional singletons in accordance with your search criteria, handpicking only those potential matches whose principles most closely complement your own.

Why not get in touch today, and find out why our multiple awards and staggering success rate speak for themselves? Let us – not your thumb – find you the love you deserve.


by Joseph Bennett


Joseph is an Assistant Matchmaker and hails from a small village in the English countryside, and moved to London in 2015. He has a long-held interest in evolutionary psychology, which spurred him to read Biological Anthropology at the University of Kent. He then read for a Master’s in Evolutionary Anthropology at University College London, writing his thesis on the game theory of dating apps. Joseph received Honours with Distinction, and his thesis is in the process of publication, co-authored with world-famous evolutionary anthropologist Professor Volker Sommer. Joseph is warm, friendly and patient which makes him a perfect fit to work with our busy Senior Matchmakers and plays a key role in helping our many clients meet their ultimate match.More by this author