Has Political Polarization Invaded Dating Apps?

Looking to date? Polarization is at an all-time high, increasing the importance of political affiliation in potential mates. Before you swipe left, however, remember that labels do not always predict beliefs or values.

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While we are more sensitive to problems with labels — perhaps now more than ever —we are more likely to react emotionally based on bias, stereotypes and experinces. The increasingly contentious and politicized environment can’t help but change how we react to labels and how we publicly align with issues, especially when it comes to seeking relationships.

When issues lose their complexity and become binary and emotional, it changes the meaning and impact of a potential partner’s political affiliation. In this climate, we broadcast and align as much for reassurance and affiliation as anything else.

OkCupid saw a 187% uptick in mentions of political affiliation from 2017–2018 alone. Yet we know that assuming a belief system based on any label, political or otherwise, is not always reliable. When it comes to romantic partners, is it worth the risk to find out or are we content to further perpetuate stereotypes?

It’s hard to make this trade-off when political labels can trigger such violent emotions especially when we’re already worn out by six months of social distancing and generalized anxiety thanks to the pandemic. It doesn’t feel like there’s much middle ground across social platforms with the increasing display of political affiliations to signal social and moral values.

On dating app profiles, political labels are litmus tests to screen and judge others, especially when political beliefs have such loaded meanings. Pew Internet reported that seven-in-ten Democrats wouldn’t consider having a relationship with a Trump voter. Dating.com reported that 84% of singles surveyed were not interested in dating someone with opposing political views. OkCupid found that 72% of females surveyed felt the same way. Major dating platforms like OkCupid, Hinge, and Bumble now have filters to eliminate matches with incompatible politics.

Are we in danger of creating more filter bubbles or is this just common sense in an activity where emotional and psychological compatiblity is a high priority? ‘Pina Coladas and walks in the rain’ hardly enter the calculations for a potential match when political affiliation is interpreted as indicative of social behaviors — from wearing masks to law enforcement tactics. It’s not about common sense, justice, or even science. The fundamental schism between opposing belief sets results in automatic reactions — fight or flight, approach or avoid — not thoughtful response. A lot of the chemistry of interpersonal relationships does rely on instinctive reactions that bring us together, such as desire, interest, and the need for connection. Dating someone whose politics imply they will behave in ways you consider dangerous becomes a dealbreaker right up front.

Political baises do make things much simpler. Reducing big or complicated concepts to a stereotype is an innate cognitive bias and one way the brain simplifies information processing. Stereotypes are problematic when people are unaware of unconscious beliefs that create prejudices based on stereotypical socially-constructed associations.

Sadly, it is in politicians’ best interests to keep people as riled up and divided as possible to get votes. Many of our elected officials demonstrate a range of behaviors, such as name-calling, fear-mongering, misinformation, and bullying, that amplify and reinforce the use of stereotypes and labels to dehumanize proponents and ridicule opposing views. This approach is socially destructive because it has longer term ramifications than the current election cycle. The more people are attacked, the more emotionally entrenched the beliefs become.

Being reactive to labels makes it difficult to have thoughtful discussions on the pros and cons of political perspective on a date because there is so much emotion at stake. People who are anxious and afraid and are inclined toward kneejerk emotional reactions to political labels. Opposing points of view can undermine our comfort and feel like rejection or a personal attack on what we value in life, such as health, family, community, or society. This perception is instinctive — part of innate survival instinct — and heightens the emotional tendency to draw tribal lines and “othering.” Amplified by the COVID environment, it’s not surprising that political affiliation is unconsciously (or even consciously) equated with danger. No one should willingly date someone that doesn’t feel psychologically safe.

Relationships may start with chemistry, but they endure with respect, trust, beliefs, and goals. The alignment of values is an essential aspect of a good relationship. Match.com found that 98% of singles want a partner who they can talk about political issues within sharp contrast to the old adage of never talking about religion or politics in social situations. Since so many social behaviors have become highly politicized, political affiliation and activism not only express social values but imply personal actions as well. Dating can be a good distraction from the real world — especially when people feel vulnerable and isolated — but not if it adds to tension and conflict.

Political labels in dating profiles aren’t just a way of expressing what matters to you. They are a line in the sand, a means of ‘curating’ out people with a set of beliefs that are dealbreakers and where no relationship is possible. Whether this represents a decline in civility or, as some suggest, a rise in narcissism, the socio-political behaviors around dating are changing. When an action as simple as wearing masks in public is seen as political affiliation rather than science, it is no longer about the mask. It is a statement of values and beliefs that is interpreted far beyond any issue about how a virus spreads. The mask becomes a signal of support for social issues that have nothing to do with the pandemic and get amplified by frustration with current political events.

Political labels are so volatile that Match.com now gives people a choice of nine political views to select — but that won’t help. Labeling will only escalate into the November election as discomfort and uncertainty rise, and the discourse gets meaner.

The result is that many people will swipe left when they see an opposing political position, finding the person unacceptable without ever giving them a try. Political views are sufficiently polarized and intractable that they are used to gauge the potential of the relationship — and the level of fear and anxiety means that we all want the comfort of having our world views validated. The divide has become sufficiently pronounced since Trump’s election that it has spawned the creation of specialized dating apps for politically-like-minded such as “Righter” and “Liberal Hearts.”

It all makes total sense. Yet, despite the importance of sharing similar values in a relationship, don’t assume that your definition of a group or label is the same as the other person’s. If you choose to limit your social life to like-minded partners, that’s fine. I get it. Political assumptions can sabotage an otherwise potentially good relationship. It may be hard to have the level of composure required to stay calm and nonjudgmental, but an individual’s beliefs or values cannot be predicted from a specific label.

Labels are subjective, and in times of fear and social conflict, internal and external definitions serve different purposes and are unlikely to align. Be aware of the tendency to assign others to group stereotypes and assume the ‘worst.’ People can have complex and even contradictory identities, seeing themselves as members of many different categories. Externally imposed labels do not necessarily align with internal belief systems.

Let’s face it. We all have certain beliefs we would find unacceptable in a partner and the COVID environment makes us less tolerant. It’s important to make sure the critical ones match up. But as individuals, what matters to us varies not just in importance but in interpretation. So if you’re looking to date and find someone who seems like a good fit except for their political affiliation, it’s always good to clarify before you rely on labels. Be aware that choices and decisions that rely on emotional reactions may feel like they make sense on Tinder but they can also start to feel right in other social situations, perpetuating mistrust and social conflict.

Reference:

Brown, A. (2020). Most Democrats who are looking for a relationship would not consider dating a Trump voter. Pew Research Center. Retrieved September 4, 2020 from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/24/most-democrats-who-are-looking-for-a-relationship-would-not-consider-dating-a-trump-voter/

Pamela Rutledge is a media psychologist, prof, writer, researcher & consultant, looking for the ‘why’ that drives media consumption, meaning & impact.

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