THE BLOG
02/23/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Is Grindr a Slot Machine in My Pocket?

I have deleted Grindr three times.

I've also downloaded the app again every time afterwards. Something would always pull me back in. And as I watched it download I'd think to myself, "Here we go again." Sure, there were cute men, flirty banter, and electric meetups. But, was I just as ready for lacklustre candidates, frustrating dead-end conversations, and abrupt rejections?

Love it or hate it, users spend an average of 90 minutes on the app daily. Some of that time on Grindr is at the expense of being engaged in the offline world. I'm amused by anecdotes of the cruise-y woods of Fire Island being aglow with smartphone screens and of men shuffling like zombies in clubs, necks craned down checking the app. (Who else now wants an AMC show called The Cruising Dead?) It's clear many men really like their hookup apps.

The metaphor of gambling is frequently used to describe love and sex, and Grindr can have the feel of a slot machine -- the signature ding-ding-dings of Vegas replaced by the buh-da-dump notification alert for cached messages. A jackpot on Grindr is an available hunk nearby who's totally into the same fun, sexy time you are. Slot machines are one of the most alluring forms of gambling, pinpointed to six reasons: the surprise and anticipation of a win, low financial investment, immediate gratification, an increase in arousal, a "near-miss" factor, and an illusion of control (such as pulling the lever) in winning. It made me wonder, might they apply to Grindr as well?

Anyone who has tried their luck at the slots knows the feeling of losing enough times to be on the brink of leaving when the next pull delivers an exhilarating win -- and encourages more playing. Slots are tricky because players never know when the win will come: the dry spell could be a couple spins or a dozen, but the prospect keeps them going. Grindr works in a similar way with a fraction of interactions leading to wins, at a frequency that can feel random. The anticipation of success drives us back to Grindr. Even the buh-da-dump sound can perk users up: hearing it in public can cause the heads of nearby men to pop like meerkats in the Kalahari.

At casinos, I skip games like Texas Hold 'Em or Blackjack for the slots. Part of it is that I'm thrifty, sticking to the quarter or dollar machines. I won't win life-changing amounts, but I also can't lose much either: I resist overinvesting. That's not a problem with Grindr, as there are very few costs to using Grindr. The ad-supported version provides essential features for free. Even for men unwilling or unable to pay for data costs, there is the option of cruising with a WiFi signal. It's certainly more affordable than many websites offering similar services that charge hundreds of dollars a year.

The best part of slots is pulling the lever, and within seconds I know if I've won or lost. I can't wait to yank that lever again and it turns out there are degrees of immediate gratification: the sooner the better. A machine that returns results in two seconds is played twice as long as a machine that takes 10 seconds, even if the slower one provides a bigger payout. Grindr, with its pool of proximal half naked men, is the epitome of immediate gratification. Within minutes I could be making arrangements to meet with another user.

Clearly, increasing arousal on Grindr isn't a problem. Winning on a slot machine can be fun: not just the monetary gain but also the lights, noises, and thrill of beating the odds. But, honestly, does it compare to the opportunity to check out, flirt, and meet nearby guys? It doesn't hurt that Grindr affords discretion with the privacy of smartphones and tablets allowing saltier interactions. And, everytime I move locations, new men become available to catch.

Obviously, not every Grindr interaction is successful. Sometimes there's what is in gambling called a "near-miss" factor. It's when, for instance, a slots player gets two of the same symbol only to lose because the third doesn't match. Although these near-misses are annoying, it also sets off a reaction that urges us to keep trying until successful. This "so close" feeling is familiar not just to gamblers and Grindr users, but anyone attempting a goal -- it's what helps drive people toward accomplishment.

Those near-misses, in slots or on Grindr, can be captivating, especially if I believe next time I can impact a better outcome. Of course, for slots, win or lose, there's no skill involved. Grindr is different, however, since I control the actions that lead to a connection. Sure, chance still factors in, but, if I'm striking out, I can take a better picture, experiment with my profile description, or cast a wider net among the pool of men. I can't guarantee success, but I have a say in the game.

It's striking to realize that Grindr fits all the reasons slot machines are so irresistible. At the same time, these parameters appear flexible enough to be applied to hitting the bars or cruising in the woods, as examples. Where Grindr edges out bars or Fire Island is that it can be a lot easier to chat up (many) hot guys and receive rejection online than it is in person. Could the take-home message be that the psychological barriers associated with in-person interactions are too high, or at least high enough to guide men to use hookup apps instead?

Interestingly, Grindr might be lowering this barrier. With the app available for hookups, some of my friends now feel that they can just go out and enjoy time with friends. It doesn't preclude them from picking up, but the pressure is off. They can be in the moment, And, something magical can happen when a person's not on the hunt, they might end up meeting someone cute enough to never use Grindr at all.

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