The “Trading Up” Phenomenon in Modern Dating

This summer, I read Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. I initially thought it was just another comedic romp a la Master of None, but guided by Professor Eric Klinenberg’s academic insight, Modern Romance turned out a witty, accurate depiction of its titular theme.

One thing I found particularly fascinating was the “trading up” phenomenon. Ansari pointed out that, in people’s search for a soulmate today, they tend to be less satisfied with “good enough.” People tend to get sucked into a constant search for better. Making a commitment feels like being locked in, thereby introducing the fear of missing out (FOMO).

Trading up via Tinder

Though I am loath to use it as a source, Thought Catalog conducted a survey of people’s opinions on Tinder and other dating apps. Tellingly, one respondent noted that “people have become professional daters – they don’t care about a relationship and they just want to keep swiping, constantly seeking new excitement. Tinder doesn’t always work because there is no incentive to make it work as there is a mentality that you can always trade up.”

The perceived ability to trade up prevents people from fully engaging in their relationships. According to a study in The Journal of Social Psychology, when those in committed relationships think attractive strangers are interested in them, their relationship satisfaction and commitment actually deceases.

Researchers in New Zealand gathered 81 college-aged participants, all in some form of committed heterosexual relationship. All of the participants rated their self-esteem, relationship satisfaction, and commitment level before participating in a video interview with three attractive strangers of the opposite sex. Though the participants didn’t know it, the other side of the “interview” was actually just a prerecorded DVD.

The participants received feedback about how the interviewers viewed them as a potential date. The researchers, pretending to be the interviewers, gave half the participants positive feedback (yes, they would date them) and the other half negative feedback (no, they wouldn’t date them). Then the participants filled out their self-esteem and relationship questionnaires again.

The people who got glowing reviews from the interviewers had an increase in self-esteem, and a decrease in relationship satisfaction and commitment. Basically, they were feeling pretty good about themselves and it probably made them feel valuable—like trading up was viable. On the other hand, the participants who were seen negatively by their interviewers had a decrease in self-esteem along with a boost in relationship satisfaction and commitment.

Something interesting to pay attention to here is the dichotomy between satisficers and maximizers. Satisficers are those people who will settle once their criteria are met; those criteria don’t necessarily need to be mediocre. Rather the key is that satisficers are satisfied once their parameters are reached. On the other hand, maximizers feel the need to evaluate every possible option, regardless of whether they find one that meets their requirements. Maximizers tend to feel FOMO / desire for trading up when satisficers might be happy settling.

Maximizer vs. Satisficer

In her book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, Lori Gottlieb offers empirical evidence to support the idea that satisficers are more content overall in relationships. She claims that “if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)” In this age of using Tinder to maximize your choices, perhaps going in the other direction and settling is the way to go.

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