How dating apps frustrate you into paying for them

You’ll have a higher chance at finding love if you pay for dating apps’ features or subscriptions. That’s what some dating app slogans claim. 

“Twice more dates, 15 times more matches, more exceptional connections,” the ads for Hinge, Bumble and Tinder read. 

But should you spend money on dating apps? A number of researchers and users with whom CBC News spoke say these companies are doing ethically questionable things —  like restricting the pool of users — to try to convince you to.

Pressured to pay

Dominique Laurencelle, who is 37 and lives in Victoria, has been using dating platforms on and off for 19 years.

While on Tinder recently, she said the app showed her photos of three people who had already “swiped right” on her profile to match with her. 

“But if you want to message them and swipe on them, you have to pay.”

Dominique Laurencelle has been using dating platforms since before Tinder was a thing. She says it’s frustrating how these apps are trying to convince her she’ll only access better matches if she pays. (Submitted by Dominique Laurencelle)

Laurencelle said pressuring tactics to spend money on dating apps are becoming more common, and she finds them frustrating. 

She’s not the only one.

Users want to take this dating-app company to court

In February, six dating-app users in the U.S. filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in California against Match Group, which owns Tinder, Hinge and The League, over its “predatory” business model.

The lawsuit alleges the company intentionally uses game-like features to keep paying users in the dating loop instead of actually helping them find love.

The plaintiffs say that goes against one of Match Group’s ad slogans — that its apps are “designed to be deleted.”

A Match Group spokesperson said in a public statement that the lawsuit is “ridiculous and has zero merit.”

The proposed class action hasn’t been certified by the federal court in Northern California.

Using ‘human beings as pawns’ to increase profits

Gizmodo technology journalist Thomas Germain, who spent a year researching Hinge and its algorithm, said dating apps don’t want to get users addicted to swiping all day.

“What they want is for you to pay.”

To do so, he said, the apps will engage in ethically questionable — though not illegal — tactics to make you frustrated with your options in the free version of the app.

Hinge, for example, will rank your attractiveness by using your profile photos when you join the platform, Germain said. Based on the users who swipe right or left on you, the algorithm adjusts the ranking.

man behind a massive computer with hearts
Germain says dating-app companies are very secretive with the information they share publicly about how their algorithms work. (Steven Silcox/Photo illustration/CBC)

“If someone who’s very attractive likes you, that means that your rating goes up a little bit. If someone who’s judged to be unattractive rejects you, then your rating is going to go down,” he said.

The app will then limit the amount of people it shows you who it determines are “in your same league” to convince you that you need to pay for a subscription to access better matches.

Most dating apps give free users a set amount of swipes per day. Germain said he’s heard from many people that once they’ve run out of their allotment of swipes for the day, the next person that the app shows them is the most attractive person they’ve seen all day. 

But to swipe right on them, you have to pay. 

“That could be a coincidence, or it could be because these apps are using human beings as pawns to manipulate people to increase their bottom line,” said Germain. 

CBC News reached out to Hinge for an interview about these tactics, but the company declined.

Photo of a woman in a dating app on an iphone
Germain, who researched Hinge’s algorithm for a year, says the app will rate each users’ attractiveness and then limit the number of people it shows them that are ‘in their own league.’ (Steven Silcox/Photo illustration/CBC)

Liesel Sharabi, an associate professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, says it’s tough to pin down what each platform is doing because they don’t share this information publicly.

“I think all of those things are strategies to get people to pay for premium features and to pay for subscriptions,” she said. “So much about the way these dating apps work is very much proprietary.”

WATCH | How dating apps convince people to pay for them:

How dating apps increase profits by making you frustrated

Have you ever paid for dating apps? Some apps want to convince you there’s a higher chance of finding love if you do, according to experts we spoke with.

Racially biased algorithms

Hannah Jeffrey, a 28-year-old from Vancouver, used dating apps throughout her 20s before matching with her current partner on Bumble almost a year ago.

She said the potential matches who were shown to her behind Hinge’s and Bumble’s paywalls were “always, always white people. I never, ever saw people of colour. So that’s concerning in itself that an app is choosing what races are going to be more attractive than others.”

Jeffrey said she doesn’t get how the apps’ algorithms decide who is attractive enough to be the “sparkly hidden match.”

No one really does, both Germain and Sharabi say. They liken dating-app algorithms to “black boxes,” because they’re impossible to understand, given the secretive nature of the companies that design them.

CBC News reached out to Bumble, Tinder and Hinge to ask specifically about their algorithms. None of them agreed to do an interview. 

Tinder and Bumble said no one was available for an interview, but both sent detailed emails describing their subscription plans — all of which are available on their websites. 

Hinge also declined an interview request.

Premium Tinder more expensive for people over 30

But dating apps engaging in morally contentious tactics isn’t new.

A 2022 investigation by Consumers International found Tinder was charging people aged 30 to 49 up to six times more to use its premium features than users between 18 to 29 years old.

“That’s ageism,” said Nicole Haley, a Vancouver-based dating coach. “And I think it’s capitalizing on that pain point — that loneliness, or that insecurity — and making money off it.”

The study shows users who were experiencing differential pricing were located in New Zealand, the U.S., the Netherlands, South Korea, India and Brazil.

Tinder ended the practice just before the embargo lifted on the investigation.

How much are people actually spending on dating apps?

The basic subscriptions of some popular dating apps that CBC News reviewed, such as Hinge and Tinder, range from $12.99 to $19.99 a week. 

But the prices can go way higher. Tinder Select costs around $670 a month, and The League has a VIP option for $1350 US a week.

“In some of my research, I found that there are people who’ve spent thousands of dollars on dating apps because they’ve been on them for a long time,” Sharabi said.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in July of 2022, about one-third of dating-app users in the U.S. say they’ve paid to use dating apps or one of their features. And men are more likely to have paid than women.

Of the nearly 5,000 respondents, the survey found that those aged 30 and older are more likely to have paid to use an app. 

“Presumably because older users are going to be a little bit more desperate, a little bit more willing to pay,” said Germain. 

So is it worth paying for dating apps?

It depends on what you’re looking for, and if you’re willing to spend some extra cash.

“I feel like you definitely make better connections and it’s a little less stressful. Most of the paid subscriptions already show you who’s already swiped on you,” Laurencelle said.

But paying for apps is unaffordable for some people who are already struggling to keep up with rising costs.

“Who can afford paying for something extra right now in this economy? I’m just trying to pay rent. I can’t pay for dating, as well,” said Nastasha Streiling, a 28-year-old in Victoria.

graphic showing women on a dating app
Haley says the paradox of choice, or having too many options, can make it harder to choose who you want to date. (Steven Silcox/Photo illustration/CBC)

Pay for one app, first tier

Meanwhile, Haley points out that paying for an app doesn’t mean that finding a partner will be quicker or easier.

But if you decide to pay, her suggestion is to choose one app and stick to the first tier, or you might have too many options. And that, she said, can make it harder to choose.

Agraj Rathi, a 27-year-old in Vancouver who’s been on and off dating apps for two years, said he’s all too familiar with that.

“Paying might not necessarily enhance the dating experience because … you get access to so many more people, you stop valuing those interactions as much. And ‘there’s plenty of fish in the sea’ becomes, like, really real,” he said.

According to Haley, it’s not about how much you pay for apps, but how your profile looks that might get you better dates.

This is part of CBC News Social’s dating series, which explores the realities of being single and dating in Canada today.

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