How Online Dating Changed the Psychology of Sexual Intimacy

When dating online, people disclose personal details more readily than in real life. This leads to a false sense of intimacy that can result in serious misunderstandings over sexual desire.

Mary Aiken:  Lots of people have a positive experience of online dating. One of the criticisms of my book is that I showcase a lot of negative content in terms of all things cyber. But there’s a good reason for that. We have an army of marketers over here telling us it’s all good. I want to position myself over here saying well it’s not so good. And hopefully then we can meet in the center and have a balanced debate. So online dating. What could go wrong? Well like all things in life it comes with risk. So the NCA which is the National Crime Agency in the UK, police force, recently issued a report to say that there has been a six-fold increase in sexual assaults associated with online dating. And what was really disturbing about that report is that 71 percent of these assaults took place on the first date and either in the home of the victim or the offender. So the question is well why is that happening? So if you look more closely at the research as a forensic cyberpsychologist the thing that really disturbed me is that the offenders reported didn’t have the typical profile of a sex offender in that they didn’t have previous convictions and they didn’t have a criminal record.

A large number of them did not have a typical profile. So what does this mean? Does it mean that sex offenders are now moving online to online dating forums to find victims more easily? Or does it mean that something else is happening in the dating world and it’s ending up with this catastrophic outcome. So let’s think about it from a cyberpsychology perspective. When you date online you create this avatar, this profile, this representation of self. But is it really you or is it an idealized version of self? And let’s not forget the person that you’re trying to date is also creating this profile. Princess Diana – we all remember Princess Diana. She said that her marriage was a little crowded because there were three people in it. Well online dating you’ve got four people in the relationship. You’ve got two cyber selves and you’ve got two real world selves. So the question is do you really know the person you’re dating. We talk to kids about stranger danger. I want to talk to you guys about stranger danger in terms of online dating. As the police say, get to know the person and not the profile. So what is the science behind why you think this stranger is suddenly an intimate friend?

In cyberpsychology we talk about hyper personal interaction which basically means that people move towards extreme amounts of self-disclosure online very quickly. Self-disclosure in the real world operates at around 40 percent according to one study but increases to 80 percent once you go online. This is a lean medium. Very few visual cues. And what happens is that as you get pieces of information you can tend to fill in the blanks and turn this person into something much more aspirational, your ideal partner. But it’s not a reality and you don’t know the person. It’s a little like what we call stranger on the train syndrome. It’s easy to sit down with a total stranger and totally disclose. But there are consequences and real world consequences. And in the report, the police report their researchers felt that the root of the problem was what they classified as misdirected expectations which means that the chat online, whatever platform whether it was text based or chat based platforms had quickly escalated into very intimate and sexualized content in some of the cases which in turn meant that when there was real world meeting that there were misdirected expectations.

To be clear sex without consent is a crime. So if anybody has been a victim of a sexual assault associated with online dating you must report it immediately. One of the big problems we face from a policing perspective is the underreporting of crime associated with online dating. It is estimated that less than one in five of these assaults are reported. And possibly because a victim may feel that the digital trace they have left online somehow may have compromised their position. That is not the case. A crime is a crime is a crime irrespective of the way that the victim engaged with the offender.

The UK's National Crime Agency recently reported that sexual assault associated with online dating had increased by six-hundred percent. That's a shocking statistic at odds with what has become an accepted way to meet people romantically. And while many individuals have had pleasant, or at least neutral experiences with online dating, those promoting the activity are often simultaneously selling it.


Mary Aiken sees herself as a bulwark against the commercialism of romantic encounters. Her aim is not to tear down technology that has widened our social circles marvelously, but merely to balance what she calls "the army of marketers" telling us that cyberspace is good. What is not good, says Aiken, or at least very different from normal behavioral, is how quickly we disclose personal details online.

Called "hyper personal interaction," it is well documented that people disclose personal details at double the rate the normally would when they are online. What results is a false sense of intimacy between two people, and while this feeling may aid the romantic connection promised by dating services, it can equally result in misunderstandings. And sometimes those misunderstandings occur over serious matters such as one person's desire to become physically intimate.

Of the sexual assaults documented by Britain's crime agency, "71 percent of these assaults took place on the first date and either in the home of the victim or the offender," says Aiken. It is not the case that sex offenders have migrated en masse to online dating platforms. Instead, navigating new social rules introduced by the Internet is complicated. Though to be clear, sex without consent is a crime.

When a cyber encounter moves offline into the real world, there are four identities parties must navigate: two real identities and two cyber identities, i.e. avatars that present an idealized version of an individual often for the purpose of attracting a mate. Unfortunately, sex crimes that result from online dating are likely to unreported, partly because victims fear their online exchanges will compromise their case. If anybody has been a victim of a sexual assault associated with online dating, however, it is essential to report it immediately.

Mary Aiken's most recent book is The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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