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Why are we reluctant to pay for love?

Why are we reluctant to pay for love?

Dating apps have a problem getting users to pay for premium features. If only people acted more rationally...

Dating apps have a problem getting users to pay for premium features. If only people acted more rationally...

Uri Bram | November 20th 2017

How much would you pay to meet the perfect long-term partner? Of course there’s a certain awkwardness to even thinking about money in the same breath as love; some kinds of value don’t feel right expressed in dollars. But very few things will have as much impact on the course of your life as meeting a person you want to spend that life with. It should make economic sense to pay a bit more to increase the probability of finding a long-term partner.

Yet many dating apps struggle to get their users to pay for premium features, even if those features claim to increase the probability of finding a match. Tinder launched Tinder Plus in 2015, with benefits including the ability to “rewind” and undo a swipe, and the chance to connect with people from other countries. Its pricing is dynamic (it costs less if you’re younger and live in a poorer country) but the most popular plan is the one that costs $9.99 a month for under-28s living in America. According to Tinder, less than 1% of its users paid for the upgrade. A fraction of a large user base is not to be sniffed at financially, but why aren’t more people willing to pay for dating apps?

One reason might be the ickiness factor. Paying to increase your probability of a date makes many people a bit uncomfortable: whether or not money can buy you love, most of us don’t want it to. It might also feel a bit desperate. Doesn’t paying for an app imply you can’t find a date for free? However, it was not long ago that online dating in general faced the same stigma, and this perception seems to have changed. The stigma rests on a kind of associational confusion, rather than a deep moral objection: paying to increase your chances of meeting someone is not at all the same as paying to date someone. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of time until paying for a dating app feels as normal as paying an entrance fee for a club.

Another reason is the perception of how useful the paid features are, relative to the free version. It’s hard to assess the effectiveness of paid sites or paid features without access to the apps’ own data. Perhaps the lack of publicised data from dating sites showing paid features paying off can be taken as mild evidence against their effectiveness. It’s also difficult – you might say impossible – for apps to collate accurate data on how many of their users go on to have relationships with each other.

However, it could also be that many dating-app users underestimate the value of premium features. The costs may be small, but they are inevitable and immediate. Meanwhile, the benefits may be large but they are uncertain and (potentially) remote. “People tend not to think in probabilistic terms,” says Spencer Greenberg of ClearerThinking.org, an website that offers interactive tools designed to help people make better personal decisions. Humans don’t necessarily do a good job of evaluating uncertain outcomes; we are much better at assessing the value of a new TV than a raffle which gives us some small probability of receiving a new TV. Paid features on dating apps would be particularly hard to value correctly, because they require us to think not just about probabilities but about marginal probabilities: how will paying for the app affect the probability of meeting a partner, relative to the probability of meeting a partner through free alternatives? As such, says Greenberg, “if an app were to make you somewhat more likely to find a romantic partner, you may not naturally value that app proportionally.”

Greenberg supects that “duration biases” are at play. Humans are not very good at taking into account how long we will receive a benefit for when deciding the value of that benefit. This is especially relevant for dating. “You may end up dating that person for years, or even be with that person for the rest of your life,” says Greenberg. “But we humans don’t necessarily take into account the duration of a benefit when we’re considering how valuable it is.”

To the economist, this all implies a rather simple (if completely impractical) solution. You could sign a contract with your favourite dating apps which committed you to paying a large lump sum – perhaps tens of thousands of dollars or more – if, and only if, the app introduced you to a long-term partner. This would be somewhat analogous to the model used by “no-win-no-fee” lawyers, who expect to lose the majority of their cases, but to know that they’ll be rewarded when a client wins big. But even aside from the legal and administrative issues – how would you force the love birds to cough up? – it seems implausible that any normal person would sign up for a no-win-no-fee dating app. As usual, economists might have to accept that love and rationality aren’t a romantic match.

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