We stood in the warm Southern California night under suburban streetlights: Myself and a bespectacled entertainment writer/director with a boyish face, whom I met on Tinder. Dinner had started off strong, with talk of sci-fi over salads, but quickly unraveled around issues of life goals and values. I want dating to lead to a committed relationship followed by marriage and kids; he doesn’t.
Before the awkward goodbye-hug, he apologized for the misunderstanding. “I’m only good for getting drunk and having sex,” he said.
I’m a single 32-year-old—young enough to be considered a “millennial” by some, but old enough that my Facebook feed overflows with announcements of marriages and babies. I always press “Like.” But privately, I feel left behind in what Vanity Fair described last August as a “dating apocalypse.” Of course, plenty of single men and women like me don’t seek out one-night stands. But I feel like, in the dating-app era, many aren’t keen on investing lots of quality time in any particular match when a better one might be a swipe away.
My outlook may have entered a vicious cycle: It’s hard to get excited about meeting someone who won’t care about you that much. I started to wonder: Is there really a commitment problem among people my age? Is technology fueling a hookup culture, or is some nebulous “millennial mentality” to blame? Am I just unlucky? I decided to call some psychologists and other love experts to find out.
Meet the Millennials
From a glance at the statistics, it’s clear that millennials, vaguely defined as those who are 18 to 34 years old this year, are indeed commitment-phobes compared to their parents and grandparents. The Pew Research Center reports that millennials are significantly less likely to be marriedthan previous generations in their 20s. And a recent Gallup poll found that the percentage of 18 to 29-year-olds who say they are single and not living with a partner rose from 52 percent in 2004 to 64 percent in 2014. Marriage among 30-somethings also dropped 10 percentage points during that decade, while the percentage living together rose from 7 to 13 percent.
But why? More than half of the millennials surveyed by Pew characterize their own cohort as self-absorbed. “Trying to live with somebody else and putting their needs first is more difficult when you have been raised to put yourself first,” says San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, who studies generational differences. She points to a culture of individualism as a major factor in preventing millennials from committing. She also cites a growing cultural ideal that you don’t need a partner in life in order to be happy.
In a new analysis of the General Social Survey of some 33,000 U.S. adults, Twenge and her colleagues have found that premarital sex has become more socially accepted over the years: The percentage who viewed premarital sex as “not wrong at all” grew from about 29 percent in the 70s to 58 percent by 2012. Generally, during the past decade, Americans tended to have more sexual partners, were more likely to have casual sex and were more accepting of premarital sex, compared to the 1970s and 1980s.
Millenials were most accepting of premarital sex out of all the generations polled. But millennials also had fewer partners than Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1981, and more closely resembled the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. Part of this could have to do with commitment issues, Twenge said, since Gen Xers may have had a longer series of serious relationships. Millennials also live with their parents longer than those from the previous generation, “and when you’re living with Mom and Dad, you’re not really going to be able to have your Tinder screw-buddy come over,” she notes.
Choice Overload and Slow Love
Besides general cultural attitudes, there’s another force working against millennials looking for lasting love: The perception of an abundance of mate choice. The “choice overload” phenomenon was immortalized in the psychology literature by a 2000 paper by Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar and Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper. They showed that when shoppers at an upscale grocery store were given six choices of jam, they were far more likely to actually buy one than when they were presented with 24 choices of jam. Follow-up studies confirmed this decision paralysis: more options lead to fewer selections—and, it turned out, less satisfaction with the choices made.
Now imagine that the jams are women or men on your dating app or website of choice. These tools give the impression that you don’t have to choose just one person, and the options for potential partners appear endless. Helen Fisher, a renowned expert on the science of love and a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, agrees that choice overload is one of the biggest problems in online dating today. And the sites themselves know it, says Fisher, who is also chief scientific advisor to Match.com, part of the same parent company as Tinder and OkCupid.
With apparently so many options, how do you even decide to go on a second date? Fisher’s advice is to go out with nine people and then pick one that you want to get to know better. With nine, you probably will have seen a representative range of personalities, she says.
Fisher doesn’t see an apocalypse happening among young daters—instead, it’s “slow love,” she explains in a new update of her 1992 classic, “Anatomy of Love.” Slow love means that before marriage, people are taking time to sleep around, have friends with benefits, or live with their partners. In Fisher’s view, this isn’t recklessness; it’s a way to get to know a mate better before signing up for a life with that person. “These days, people are so scared of divorce that they want to be absolutely positive of who they’re going to marry long before they tie the knot,” she says.
Fisher’s model of how mating works is that we have evolved three different brain systems for it: The sex drive, intense feelings for romantic love and a desire for deep attachment. These primal systems fly under the radar of our rational, “thinking” cortex and limbic system, which is linked to emotion, she explains. So no matter how culture shifts or choices change, we are still wired to form a pair bond. She assured me that 85 percent of Americans are still marrying by age 49, so it’s not as if marriage itself has died. “I think the human animal is built for commitment,” she says, “and I think that those brain systems aren’t going to away just because we’ve got apps.”
In support of this view, she cites surveys of online dating websites (including those commissioned by Match) in which only 3 percent of men say what they’re looking for is just to meet a lot of people, and only 1.6 percent of women say the same. Fisher adds: “The vast majority, when you ask them what they are looking for, say they are looking for some sort of partner and some sort of commitment. And I’m not surprised.”
Marriages Made Online
But “some sort of commitment” isn’t necessarily marriage. What happens to people who meet online and then get married? A 2013 study led by psychologist John Cacciopo at the University of Chicago found that marriages that begin online have a slightly lower likelihood of ending in divorce or separation. His investigation included people meeting on social networks and via instant messaging and chat rooms, in addition to dating websites—and he surveyed people who had met on a variety of sites, though the research was funded by eHarmony.
Specifically, among people who had met their spouse online, nearly 6 percent of them experienced a marital breakup, compared to almost 8 percent of those who met their spouse off-line. This is a small but statistically significant difference, which held even after controlling for such variables as age, sex, ethnicity, household income and religious affiliation. The “protection” that meeting online may offer was greatest among people married recently, males and respondents self-identifying as Hispanic or Asian/Pacific Islander, Cacciopo and colleagues found.
The researchers also discovered that people who met their spouses online tended to report more satisfying marriages than those who met in the real world, though this difference was also small: On a satisfaction scale from one to seven, the online spouses averaged a score of 5.6, compared to 5.5 for the offline couples. The study didn’t address why, but Cacciopo and his wife and co-author Stephanie Cacciopo speculate that there are several possible reasons: People may disclose more about themselves online, individual dating websites may attract particular types of people, and the general membership pool of dating websites may have “permitted these individuals to be more selective in identifying a compatible partner.” Moreover, matching algorithms “may also play a role in marital outcomes,” they say. Marital satisfaction scores did vary across the dating sites mentioned in the study.
The Cacioppos wrote that more than one-third of the 19,131 people they surveyed who married between 2005 and 2012 had met their spouses online. So there is hard evidence that, despite cultural shifts in attitudes and choice overload, plenty of people do want commitment, and they do find it through online venues.
This is all still a new space for social psychology. As always, it will take more research to figure out whether the trends toward more “slow love,” less commitment and meeting potential spouses online are going to lead to the kinds of relationships that last longer than the Internet. (It’s also not clear that the full spectrum of sexual orientation and other demographics is adequately represented in the studies that have been done so far). We don’t know for sure if the millennials who haven’t committed yet will eventually settle down—we are, after all, still young—but history suggests that most will. And maybe, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how you meet someone because, as Fisher says, people are still people, with the same basic drives we’ve have had for millions of years.
I guess I should get back on my apps now, and see if there’s anyone out there seeking someone whose response to the perils of being single is to consult with preeminent researchers about why it’s hard to find commitment in modern society.
I’m good for trying again.
Elizabeth Landau is a science writer and communications specialist living in Pasadena, California. She holds a Master of Arts degree in journalism from Columbia University and an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Princeton University. Find her on Twitter at @lizlandau
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Elizabeth Landau is a science writer and communications specialist living in Pasadena, California. She holds a Master of Arts degree in journalism from Columbia University and an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Princeton University, where she picked up a lot of funny nicknames