Can a hook reduce bias in online dating?

How might we reduce bias in online dating. I'm taking a class on consumer behavior to see if I can find out. (Emi Kolawole)

How might we reduce bias in online dating. I'm taking a class on consumer behavior to see if I can find out. (Emi Kolawole)

It's no secret that I have a fascination with online dating and bias. 

This past quarter, at Stanford, I have been taking a class on consumer behavior at the The instructors were kind enough to let me sit in on the class in order to get a leg-up on behavioral science and research as it relates to consumer behavior -- particularly with web-based applications and products. 

The class has been eye-opening, even though I consider myself jaded beyond any reasonable measure when it comes to consumer behavior and online content. 

The instructors, Nir Eyal and Steph Habif, have centered the class around the use of a model Nir developed called "The Hook".

Nir has written the book on how to make addictive products. (It's called "Hooked"). It's a quick and useful read, exploring why we keep going to our phones, computers and tablets to scroll endlessly through apps, liking, starring, commenting and otherwise sharing our ideas for free. We provide companies with gargantuan amounts of data, and we are showing them our inner-most thoughts and habits -- our true selves. 


That's where the hook comes in. Apps and other interactive experiences that keep us coming back for more, take us through a loop that starts with a trigger. It can be internal -- we're bored, stressed or lonely. The trigger can also be external -- think of the big red number in the upper right-hand corner of an app icon or the buzz, ding, whiz, zing, or ping your phone emits whenever something new has happened. That trigger then leads us to take a particular action, and that action produces a variable reward (Oh! I have a match!).

That variable reward is, indeed, variable. We may love what we see, like it, be indifferent towards it, dislike it or hate it. The important part is we are given something to which we can respond, with the promise that the next time it may make us feel better than we feel in that moment. Then, once we have been given our little treat (be it good or bad), we make an investment of some kind. We like, reply, star, share, post, comment or even pay to perpetuate the cycle or start us on an entirely new and even more addicting cycle than before. 

The Hook model developed by Nir Eyal. 

The Hook model developed by Nir Eyal. 

So, what does this mean for online dating and racial preference/bias? 

Well, I am not 100-percent sure ... yet. The research shows that placing counter-stereotypical images in front of people can help counteract bias. Meanwhile, people were more likely to respond to a romantic message sent by someone of a different race than they were to initiate contact across racial lines and were more likely to send a message to someone of a different race in the future as well.

But what does that mean for a hook? 

I am currently working on a project with two fellow students tackling the question: "How might we reduce bias in online dating?" It occurred to me, as we were putting together our presentation for class tomorrow, that the existing hook in online dating is sound. The internal trigger is one of a number of feelings, including loneliness or boredom, and the external trigger is that someone is alerted they have a match (or more than one). They undertake the action of checking to see who they matched with, are then given the variable reward of a match (or more) that they like, dislike or feel indifferent towards. They then invest by continuing to search for more matches or providing feedback as to the matches they have received. 

That's one hook. The Tindr hook, for example, is more along the lines of the infinite scroll or a game. You are triggered by, again, ennui or, perhaps, loneliness, and you log in and start swiping ... and you keep swiping until you're interrupted by another notification. you get a series of bad matches or you're called on to do something else in the analog world. The variable reward is constant and akin to a slot machine. 

How, in that cycle, do you introduce elements from the research findings that we're focusing on? Initially, I believed that both findings were counter to the hook model, which is why dating sites do not currently incorporate them. Now, I think it's a matter of using the existing hooks as a means of counter-stereotypical message conveyance and cross-racial interaction.  

Currently, we are looking at the app's launch/firing up on one's phone as an entryway for counter-stereotypical images and we are looking at the variable reward to be inclusive of a cross-racial message of some kind. We are also looking at whether there is an additional option in the investment component of the hook to provide an alternative to rejection and acceptance and give people an opportunity to consider someone they might otherwise reject through a different lens. 

All in all, this is an exploration of whether we can make an experience that counteracts racial bias as addictive as ones that either do not or actively allow people to exercise on those biases.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have homework to do. 



Emi Kolawole

Emi Kolawole earned her B.A. in international relations and theater studies from Wellesley College and studied abroad at both the Panthéon-Sorbonne and the National Theater Institute.  She joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center's in November, 2005 after working as a news researcher for Congressional Quarterly on issues of defense, foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. Previously, she was a production assistant at PBS's "NOW With Bill Moyers," and worked in the Washington area office of a defense contractor.

In addition to her work as a staff writer and researcher for FactCheck, Emi was the host, writer and video editor for's weekly video feature "Just the Facts!"  She is a level 1 certified Final Cut Pro editor and earned her master's degree in producing for film and video at American University. She also led the fact-checking review effort for "UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

Emi served as the associate producer for "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill & National Journal." In June 2010 she joined the Washington Post as a producer for PostPolitics. She served as the founding editor for Ideas@Innovations (now "Innovations") and co-host for the Post's daily news program "59 Seconds." In 2011, Emi was named a Young Global Shaper by The World Economic Forum. In 2013 she was listed among The Grio 100, was named a French-American Foundation Young Leader and accepted an invitation to become the Editor-in-residence at the at Stanford University. She has served for the past three years at the, most recently as a senior media designer working on the media experiments collaboration between Knight Foundation and the She is currently the founder of the media and design consultancy Dexign LLC.