Mastering Modern Love: Logan Ury on Building Better Relationships through Behavioral Science

As a behavioral economist, I spend most of my work life trying to understand why people do what they do and how the right tools and nudges can help them improve their decision-making. So it might come as no surprise that I enjoy applying the same analytical methods to my private life (as you might have read in “How to Date Like a Game Theorist”.)

Over the past few years, I have spent countless evenings with friends chatting over a bottle of wine analyzing their behavior as well as the behavior of the people they were dating. We discussed questions like, Am I too picky? Why did he ghost me? How do I know if it is “the spark” or just anxiety? Should we move in together or get married first? Could I be happier with someone else? What if we break up and I never find someone better?

I began wondering what a behavioral science approach to romantic relationships might look like. There is no shortage of work on how to apply behavioral science to other aspects of our lives to improve our productivity, health, or financial well-being. Why not relationships?

The suprising science that will help you find love

Enter Logan Ury, behavioral scientist, dating coach, and director of relationship science at the dating app Hinge. Her new book, How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science that Will Help You Find Love, is a data-driven guide to relationships, filled with exercises and tools to help you detect your behavioral biases and nudge yourself to better relationships. Combining everything behavioral science has to offer with her own experience from coaching clients, she provides answers to many of the questions my friends and I so often discussed.  

I recently had the chance to sit down with Logan over Zoom, she in San Francisco, I in Copenhagen. We discussed the biases that often stand in the way of love, the ways the pandemic has affected our love lives, and how Hinge is using behavioral science to get people off their app as fast as possible and into happy relationships.

Something we both agreed on: a great long-term relationship is the culmination of a series of good decisions, and we need to learn more about how to make those good decisions.

Christina Gravert: You provide plenty of evidence in your book that, when it comes to dating, people often focus on superficial characteristics that are not predictive of whether someone will make a loving and reliable partner. Why are we so bad at identifying what will make us happy in a long-term relationship?

Logan Ury: In general, we’re bad at affective forecasting. We’re bad at predicting how future situations will make us feel. But also, it’s hard to know what matters in romantic relationships. Dating is actually a very new thing in the span of human history. While we’re born knowing how to love, we’re not necessarily born knowing how to date. Dating, and what to optimize for in a long-term partner, isn’t an inherently known thing. It’s something that you have to learn.

We have this wonderful field of relationship science that can tell us this is what matters, and this is what doesn’t, for long-term relationships, but most people don’t have access to that information. That’s one of the things I’m trying to correct in the book.

Dating is actually a very new thing in the span of human history. While we’re born knowing how to love, we’re not necessarily born knowing how to date.

If you think about what a dating app can measure, it’s very limited in what’s quantifiable. Apps can measure height, they can measure age, they can measure your job, and they can measure your ability to upload photos that you look flattering in. Those aren’t the things that lead to long term relationship success, but, merely showing those things, makes them seem more important.

Dating apps, unfortunately, perpetuate some of the superficiality, and people focus on those things more, as opposed to what they should be focusing on, the things that we know relationship science has found are correlated with long-term relationship success. Things like kindness, loyalty, emotional stability, the ability to make hard decisions together, a growth mindset. And, perhaps most importantly, what side of you they bring out.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on dating. At first glance, it might seem that with all the social distancing and stay at home orders, the impact would be negative. But in my social circle, there’s been a boom in serious relationships, and many of them have actually started on dating apps. How do you think that the pandemic has impacted dating and what people might be looking for in relationships—finding a long-term partner versus a short-term fling?

We’ve done so much research into this at Hinge. Before the pandemic, almost no one had tried virtual dating. But at the beginning of the pandemic, 70 percent of Hinge users said that they were open to trying video dating. Now, when you flash forward almost a year, the majority of Hinge users have tried video dating.

People did not take this year off from dating. In the book, I talk about the idea of intentional love—seeing your love life as something where you’re in the driver’s seat, seeing your love life as something that you can put effort into and see results versus something that just passively happens to you. We’ve seen this play out with the pandemic—46 percent of Hinge users have said that they’ve either broken a bad habit or developed a good habit during the pandemic when it comes to dating. Bad habits like reaching out to an ex, not chasing after someone who’s not interested in you, and being unclear about what you’re looking for in a relationship.

There were also people, I refer to them as maximizers, who would go from first date to first date and always say, “The perfect person is just around the corner.” But because it’s harder to meet people, and it’s harder to get on that date and get to know someone, they’re actually starting to invest in the connections that they make. Some people have found that this was exactly the change they needed to invest in their love lives in a different way and find a great relationship.

A couple of days ago, I went for a socially distanced walk with a single friend, and we were discussing whether some dating apps are not really meant to create connection but rather are slot machines that provide ego boosts through matches. The user is encouraged to keep playing, rather than find a partner. Hinge’s tagline is, “Designed to be deleted.” Seeing this through the lens of behavioral science, can you tell us a bit about what features Hinge uses in order to get people to stop playing?

Let me start by saying, when I was researching my book, I had the opportunity [before I joined the company] to interview the founder of Hinge, Justin McLeod. I walked into the interview and basically said, I don’t believe your tagline. I don’t believe designed to be deleted because how would you have a successful product when you are telling your users that they should leave the app? It just doesn’t make sense.

And he said, No, as soon as we started designing to be deleted, our user growth has exploded, and it’s exploded ever since. And this is why: when people meet on a dating app and they enter a happy relationship, they tell other people about it. It’s word of mouth. And so the quality of the people on Hinge, the quality of the relationships that come out of it, has led to more success for the app.

My job is to help people learn how to date more successfully and effectively, and to study the people who are able to delete the app—what did they do to get there? I can tell you a couple of things that Hinge does from a feature perspective.

One of them is something called “We met.” This is an in-app survey, where after we think that you have connected with someone on the app, we ask, Did you go on a date with this person? And is this the type of person you’d like to go out with again? This helps us check, are we making good matches?

Users say ghosting is the number one problem about modern dating. If you haven’t responded for a while, we actually nudge you toward responding.

Next is something called “Your turn.” Users say ghosting is the number one problem about modern dating. If you haven’t responded for a while, we actually nudge you toward responding. We say, it’s your turn. This is light touch, but it’s a way of helping remind people, you probably just got distracted, but it’s your turn to continue the conversation, and this helps limit ghosting.

We also have “Most compatible.” This leverages the matching algorithm from the Nobel Prize–winning Gale-Shapley algorithm. Each day we present you with a most compatible match, and we’ve seen a lot of couples come out of that.

Twenty-five percent of people who sign up for Hinge actually don’t make it through the onboarding process. For most apps, that would be seen as a sign of failure. For us, we see that as a sign of success, because we are optimizing for people who are willing to put in the effort to find a great relationship.

Your book supplies the reader with a host of tools for behavior change, such as an Event Decision Matrix for busy people to determine at which event they have the maximum chance of finding a potential partner. Do you think it possible to use tools like these to nudge yourself toward better relationships?

The first part of the book provides information to help you identify your dating blind spots, your three dating tendencies—maximizer, romanticizer, or hesitator. [Explore your tendencies here.] But I would say the more important part, the part that actually can change someone’s life, is the behavioral science informed tools, the tips that actually help you change your behavior.

Source: How Not to Die Alone by Logan Ury

I could tell someone, “Your issue is that you are a hesitater, and you’re not putting yourself out there, and you’re waiting until you’re a hundred percent ready to date,” but that’s not really going to help them. What’s going to help them is my checklist of how to overcome that hesitater tendency, things like setting a deadline, changing your identity to being a dater, having accountability from your friends, and setting a goal for the number of dates that you go on per week. What I can really do is empower people with the information and then empower them with the behavioral-science-backed tools that help them overcome their patterns of behavior and thinking that aren’t serving them.

Daniel Kahneman once said that if he had a magic wand that could eliminate one behavioral bias, it would be overconfidence. If you had the same magic wand, what behavioral bias would you eliminate to help people with their long-term relationships?

I would wave a magic wand and help people overcome present bias. If we didn’t have the present bias, then we would focus more on working out and eating healthy and saving money. But it would also mean that we look for the life partner instead of the prom date.

The prom date is the person who looks good in photos, is fun to dance the night away with, maybe it’s the kind of person you want to have sex with at the end of the night, but this is not necessarily the kind of person who you want to be with long term. The life partner is that person who’s loyal, kind, reliable, and will be with you through the good and the bad. I encourage people in the book to make that shift from the prom date to the life partner because we start dating in our teens, and it’s totally fine to date the prom date. But at a certain point, you need to take yourself more seriously and look for the life partner, the person who’s going to be with you and be a great partner long-term.

Hal Hershfield discusses the idea that when we think about our future self, we think about them as a different person from who we are now, we don’t think about it as an extension of our present self. He did an interesting experiment where he took people and showed them aged photos of themselves, and then had them make investment decisions. People made better decisions with more long-term ideas in mind than those who were not in this condition.

For the last four years, I’ve hosted what I call an obituary party. People look at aged photo of themselves, and then they write their obituary. It helps people really focus on the fact that their future self is the same as their self now.

Inspired by Hal Hershfield, for the last four years, I’ve actually hosted what I call an obituary party. I have people over and I take photos of them and I age them with an aging app. Then they look at this aged photo of themselves, and they write their obituary. It helps people really focus on the fact that their future self is the same as their self now, and it helps them think about, “What do I want to be remembered for? What’s my legacy? What matters to me?”

Some really interesting things have come out of the obituary party. One friend of mine who was adopted decided that he wanted to adopt, another realized that being the matriarch of a family was more important than work and she was going to invest more time in that versus her job. For me, this is how I made the switch from working in tech to actually focusing on dating and relationships full-time and writing my book. I think that present bias really holds us back from making the best long-term decisions for ourselves and that if we can overcome it, we will be empowering ourselves and empowering our future selves.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.