Love in the Time of Tinder: is our media changing perceptions of romance?

Love in the Time of Tinder: is our media changing perceptions of romance?

Dating show audiences are more optimistic about finding love in unconventional ways: yet when it comes to physical attraction versus emotional connection, they’re still traditional romantics.

With the emergence of dating apps like Tinder and Happn, the way in which single people meet and date has changed dramatically over the last few years. Over a fifth of our YouGov panel have used a dating app or website at some point, and a further 14% would consider doing so in the future. And whether it’s Bumble, Grindr or Plenty of Fish they’ll be signing up for, these apps all have one thing in common- their emphasis on appearance before personality.

Last summer we asked our panellists whether they thought the increasing popularity of dating apps was a good or bad thing for singles. Over a third said dating apps made things easier, and had enabled many millions of people to meet, while 19% argued that they’d been a negative innovation, placing too much emphasis on short-term relationships. For this latter group, choosing who to date based on their looks rather than their character was unlikely to lead to a successful romantic relationship.

Yet despite this negativity towards appearance-led dating, the approach taken by these apps has spread into the world of TV dating too. Gone are the days of Cilla Black’s Blind Date- this year’s most talked about dating shows have been more reliant upon physical attraction than ever before. Whether it’s the cutthroat tactics deployed by the bronzed inhabitants of Love Island, or the rehearsed one-liners of Take Me Out’s brash bachelorettes, personality seems less and less important in the quest for reality-TV romance.

This trend seemingly came to a head earlier this year, with the launch of Channel 4’s Naked Attraction, closely followed by TLC’s Undressed. In these shows, any pretence of seeking genuine emotional connection is stripped away, and prospective partners are judged instead upon various physical features. For many in the media, these new formats presented the natural consequence of today’s singles’ tendency to judge prospective partners on their appearance. Whether the two were linked or not, these were developments that we at YouGov wanted to get to the bottom of.

Following on from last year’s survey on dating apps, we wanted to find out whether people believe today’s dating shows can result in successful relationships, or if the trend of appearance-led dating is seen as too superficial to lead to true romance. We looked at the audiences of dating shows that focused on more conventional methods, namely the blind dates shown on Dinner Date and First Dates, and compared them with viewers of shows employing somewhat more unusual strategies, Naked Attraction and Love Island. Do viewers of these shows really believe that successful relationships can come about from them, or are these encounters followed so eagerly because they provide some escapism from the more humdrum world of realistic dating?

While viewers of all ages and walks of life might occasionally indulge in the guilty pleasures of reality TV romance, it is women under 34 who are most likely to follow the shows that we tracked. The only exception to this pattern, it seems, is Channel 4’s Naked Attraction, which since launching in July has brought in more 35-44 year old viewers than from any other age group. Of particular note was the significant number of men over the age of 45 who admitted to tuning in to watch. And while a mere 6% of viewers claimed that they believed the show could lead to a successful relationship, on closer inspection, we found that every respondent who stated this belief was male. We’ll leave it to the reader to draw conclusions…

The other controversial reality TV hit of the summer was ITV’s Love Island. Love Island’s popularity grew exponentially this summer, from a relative unknown in 2015, consigned to ITVBe, to one of the most talked about programmes of the year. The show’s audience is overwhelmingly millennial and female. 29% of them are single, almost all of whom use dating apps. Of all audiences, this group would be most likely to show signs of a correlation between their opinions of the dating methods used by contestants, and their own dating behaviours.

We looked at the Love Island audience’s attitudes on a variety of topics, and of particular significance was how disproportionately they valued appearance compared to the UK average. 74% of Love Island viewers agree with the statement, “It is important for me to look physically attractive”, significantly more than the national average of 56%.

This preoccupation with appearance does not necessarily mean that Love Island viewers are all converts to some unromantic, superficial philosophy of relationships. The majority would describe themselves as hopeless romantics, and when asked if they were ruled more by head or heart, significantly more stated that the latter guided their actions. Furthermore, only 14% of those who watched the show felt that it could result in a successful relationship, despite the widespread popularity of several couples who successfully navigated the competition together. While the show’s format may have proved entertaining to them, it seems that the show’s audience are at heart more traditionally romantic than the behaviour of the contestants might suggest.

Audiences of dating shows based upon more conventional methods, like First Dates or Dinner Date, largely did not deviate from the demographic composition of these other reality TV audiences. The majority of them would argue that dating apps have been a good thing for singles, and over a third of them are members of one. Where these shows differ from those structured around less traditional dating is in their perceived success. 27% of Dinner Date’s audience said it could lead to a successful romantic relationship, a proportion outstripped only by the 61% of First Dates viewers who felt that couples meeting in the show’s Central London restaurant stood the best chance of staying together. In fact, among audiences of every dating show we asked about, these shows centred around conventional dating were voted the most likely to produce lasting love.

Across the board, users of dating apps are more likely than others to believe that a romance-based reality TV show could actually produce a successful relationship. 55% of dating app users, and 58% of under 24s, listed at least one TV show that they felt could enable this to happen, compared to just 24% of over 55s. Younger people have more faith in unconventional and non-traditional means of starting relationships, and this seems as true of TV as of Tinder.

However the types of dating shows that these people think could produce successful relationships are ones which structure themselves around ideas of conventional dating. While formats which include nudity, arranged marriages or compulsory relationships might provide entertainment simply for deviating from the norm, it’s clear that viewers young and old, be they serial swipers or serial monogamists, believe that the personal connections fostered through traditional dating are the best foundation for a lasting relationship.

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