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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on February 15, 2021 - February 21, 2021

How has technology affected the pair-bonding behaviours of humans? A lecturer at the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Department of Psychology, Dr Goh Pei Hwa, who has done research on the matter, thinks it has been both a blessing and a curse.

“On the one hand, it is helping people spread their net far and wide to maximise the likelihood of finding ‘the one’. On the other, giving people the impression that there are more fish in the sea may prevent them from settling because what if there is something [meaning someone] better out there?” she tells Digital Edge in an interview.

Technology has been affecting dating behaviour for longer than one would think. In 1953, Christopher Strachey — a pioneering programmer at the University of Manchester and nephew of Lytton Strachey, who was a founding member of the famous Bloomsbury Group in London that included Virginia Woolf — wrote one of the first computer programs to automatically generate love letters.

This program, which he ran on the University of Manchester computer, a Ferranti Mark 1, used about 70 base words from Roget’s Thesaurus, could produce a combinatorial explosion of results — about 300 billion different letters — and was one of the first instances of artificial intelligence. 

Since then, technology has intersected with romance in a variety of ways, from online dating to the politics of social media relationship statuses and the obsessive archaeology of a partner’s Instagram posts. 

According to a survey by consumer market data collection company Rakuten Insight, 37% of Malaysian respondents said they had used a mobile dating app; of those, 50% were using Tinder, the US-based geosocial networking and online dating app that allows users to anonymously swipe to like or dislike other profiles based on their photos, a brief biodata and common interests.

Meanwhile, Goh points out that in terms of initiating relationships, technology helps. “People enjoy a lower risk of rejection when dating online. It is safer because you know that if you get a match, they have swiped right [signifying approval] on you, too. A match basically tells you that you are already speaking to someone who is at least, on the most basic level, interested in you in some way.”

However, there is a downside to that, she adds. “Imagine that you are excited you have your brand-new account on your dating app and begin swiping away one evening. A few swipes can turn into a long evening of swiping, and the next thing you know, you have spent three hours on your phone searching for your next big love. And you have zero matches.

“Even though this is not a ‘real’ face-to-face rejection, it still stings. It hurts to know that people are already rejecting you even before meeting you.”

This can also apply to the ones who get a “bunch of matches”. “Days go by and no one starts a conversation with you. You initiate a conversation, but then the person ignores or ‘unmatches’ you. Or what about when the conversation actually gets going and you are feeling hopeful, but then the person decides to stop responding?

“This is such a popular phenomenon that people have coined the term ‘ghosting’ for this disappearing act. I asked 319 Malaysian young adults whether they had ever ghosted someone or been ghosted. More than half of them have experienced either. Herein lies the dark side of low-risk communication. 

“Online communication provides a safe haven for people to connect with others, but also an equally safe one for people to end relationships with minimal confrontation. So, yes, rejection does sting. But it hurts more when it happens unexpectedly and without proper closure.”

Despite all this, Goh maintains that technology has been helpful when it comes to initiating relationships. “People have reported much success in finding their partners with the help of technology. Having the opportunity to meet people outside their social circle is exciting. It can also help people learn more about themselves and what they seek in a partner.”

Goh conducted her own survey on dating behaviour and found that only 40% of the participants have used (or would admit to using) a dating app at some point in their lives. “I expected more, especially since I was asking a sample of young adults who were mostly from Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.”

Another thing she notes is that the stigma associated with online dating is shifting. “I remember a friend telling me she would never go on a dating app because ‘she’s not that desperate yet’. That was about six years ago. In my study, I found that only 20% of people still agree with that statement. About half felt that online dating is a good way to meet people, while 30% were undecided. Technology is only going to continue developing, along with dating habits.”

How has the pandemic affected dating behaviour? Goh laughs. “Humans are adaptive beings. Give us an obstacle and we will find a way to overcome it. Dating apps were busy in 2020. People fell in love over text messages, voice calls and video calls.”

In terms of maintenance, she says technology has done wonders for long-distance relationships. “No more expensive international calls or having to wait for snail mail. Video calls are now the norm. Technology provides us with easy access to communicate with our partner, and we all know how important communication is to the quality of a relationship.”

There is a flipside to this, however. “This ease of access can also create friction in relationships. In psychology, researchers study how technology interferes with romantic relationships and have even coined the term ‘technoference’ to describe the phenomenon.”

Goh points out that the ease in starting a relationship can also mean it is easy to start clandestine or illicit relationships. “It does not take a lot of extra effort to seek out like-minded people, who are also interested in extramarital or extra-relational affairs.”

Still, with or without technology, cheaters will probably cheat, she says. “Is technology really the cause of such relationship-harming behaviours? The way you answer this is probably similar to how you would answer the question: Do guns kill people? Guns do not kill people. People kill people. Technology does not make someone a cheating, inattentive partner. It may provide more opportunities for a partner to cultivate such behaviours, but I won’t say it causes it.”

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