New research shows online dating can cultivate a rejection mindset

A group of psychologists in the Netherlands have discovered that we have a tendency to gradually close ourselves off when dating online. In other words, the more dating profiles people see, the more likely they are to reject them.

The findings, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, indicate that the seemingly endless stream of options can increase feelings of dissatisfaction and pessimism about finding a partner, which in turn leads to rejecting potential mates.

“We know that being and feeling loved is a prerequisite for a happy life, and I’ve therefore always been fascinated by the ways in which people look for love,” said study author Tila Pronk, an assistant professor of social psychology at Tilburg University.

“How do people search for a romantic partner? What makes them interested in one person, and not in the other? This question has become even more pertinent since the dating landscape so drastically changed the last decade.”

“Thanks to online dating, there are more possibilities to meet new partners than ever before, yet at the same time there have never been more people single in western society,” Pronk explained. “I wanted to investigate this paradox, and did so by developing a dating paradigm similar to the most popular online dating application: Tinder.”

Pronk and her colleagues conducted three studies of single, heterosexual individuals. They focused on those aged 18 to 30, as this is the age group most likely to be involved in online dating.

In the first study, 315 participants were shown either 45 or 90 pictures of potential partners on a computer screen, and told to either press a green heart to accept or a red cross to reject the picture. In the second study, which included another 158 individuals, the participants used their own photos in the task and were informed that “and you can really get a ‘match’”

In the third study, 305 participants were shown 50 pictures of potential partners, which were divided into blocks of 10. Every time they completed a block, the participants answered several questions about their experience with the task.

The researchers found that the acceptance rate decreased over the course of the online dating procedure in all three studies. The last study provided some clues as to why: participants reported a decreasing satisfaction with the pictures over time and an increasing pessimism about being accepted themselves, which in turn was associated with the tendency to reject.

“The continued access to an almost limitless pool of potential partners when online dating has negative side effects: it makes people more pessimistic and rejecting,” Pronk told PsyPost. “We coined this phenomenon the ‘rejection mindset.’ The consequence of the rejection mindset is that over time, people ‘close off’ from mating opportunities when online dating.”

This rejection mindset appeared to be particularly strong among women, “the gender that is already much less likely to accept potential partners to begin with,” the researchers said. “As a consequence, the initial benefit women have in their likelihood of having a match dissolved in the process of online dating.”

Future research could examine whether a rejection mindset is developing in other areas of life.

“Dating is not the only domain in life in which choice options have vastly expanded,” Pronk explained. “From relatively mundane daily choices (e.g., grocery shopping) to major life decisions (e.g., buying a house), people now face more options than ever before. It remains to be tested whether a rejection mind-set also applies to these contexts.”

“Also, it would be interesting to test whether the rejection mind-set is specific for online dating or whether it generalizes to other forms of dating (e.g., speed dating).”

The study, “A Rejection Mind-Set: Choice Overload in Online Dating“, was authored by Tila M. Pronk and Jaap J. A. Denissen.

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