A Bizarre 1940s Psychology Experiment Inspired One Of The Most Popular Apps In The World

AlexandraPopova /

It's no secret that dating apps like Tinder have an addictive quality. Users can spend hours swiping right, swiping left just to feel the rush of dopamine and the sense of validation that comes with a match – in fact, one study found that roughly half of millennials use dating apps to swipe with no intention to follow up their matches with a date, or even a message.   

But why exactly is it so addictive? It all comes down to a 1940s social experiment involving pigeons and gambling.


Journalist Nancy Jo Sales delved into the (sometimes) dark world of online dating for her new HBO documentary: Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age. In it, she reveals a conversation she had with Tinder CSO Jonathan Badeen in which he admitted the inspiration behind the infamous "swipe right" feature came from an experiment he heard about during psychology class at University. 

The experiment in question was conducted in 1948 by one Burrhus Frederic Skinner, a psychology professor and social philosopher at Harvard University, who was also (bizarrely) responsible for teaching his children's cats to play piano and inventing a strange box-like contraption to hold infants called the "baby-tender". His leading theory was operant conditioning, which is the idea that behavior is determined by a system of punishment and reward (or negative and positive reinforcement).

In one experiment to prove the concept, Skinner trained a group of hungry pigeons to believe they could trigger the dispersal of food through random pecking. Naturally, this encouraged them to peck more. What's more, many of the pigeons began pecking in specific patterns – similar to the way a gambler or football fan might have certain routines to "improve" their luck during a game.

Sadly for the pigeons, this "superstitious" pecking had no effect on their food source. In reality, the food was being delivered at random times entirely unrelated to their pecking or any other behavior pattern. Still, that did not stop them pecking away.


"[T]his is what Tinder is," Sales told Recode. "It’s like the pigeon becomes a gambler, because when he pecks and gets food, he gets bored, so he peck-peck-pecks, he doesn’t know when he’s gonna get the food. He might get it, he might not."

"That’s the whole swiping mechanism. You swipe, you might get a match, you might not. And then you’re just like excited to play the game."

So there you have it. But the real question is, will it stop you swiping?