Why DNA-based Apps Betray the Open Promise of Online Dating

A man prepares to use a DNA swab kit.
“I wonder which chromosome will be her favorite…” WILLSIE/Thinkstock

Get out of the way, Tinder. There’s a new dating app on the scene hoping to disrupt the way we find that one special person to eventually melt down in an IKEA with over the relative merits of a Kvikne wardrobe versus a Trysil. Described by Wired as “a sort of 23andMe meets Tinder meets monogamists,” Pheramor’s secret to success is your DNA. That’s right—for a low-rate of $19.99 plus a $10 monthly membership fee, the Houston-based online dating startup promises to match local singles who are compatible not only socially but genetically.

The app’s matching algorithm analyzes 11 special “attraction genes” supposedly linked to our pheromones—olfactory signals that some believe trigger attraction. The pheromone profile is sequenced from a cheek swab kit required of every Pheramor user, which is then combined with information mined from your social media activity to help the government track you find your perfect match. The creators of the app won’t reveal what genes they’re looking at but promise users that they won’t look at “skin color, hair color, eye color, height, etc. from your genetics”—because every great love story starts with a romantic disclaimer promising not to genetically profile you!

Despite Pheramor’s vaguely eugenicist vibe and creepily literal take on the concept of “chemistry,” it has still managed to attract some hype. By the time the platform formally launched on Thursday in Houston, the test kits had sold out, meaning there are thousands of people somewhere in Texas so fed up with Tinder they decided to take part in this fodder for a B-rate dystopian movie. Dating platforms have always made their bones off of scientifically dubious claims of having the secret to matchmaking, but the concept of pheromones is some of the shakiest science out there.

To support their algorithm, Pheramor cites a famous 1998 study—appropriately called the “sweaty T-shirt experiment”—that found that women were more attracted to the scent of men who had the greatest genetic difference from them on a specific chromosome. And while specific pheromones are known to trigger specific responses in animals from bees to squid, scientists have yet to isolate them in humans, and according to Smithsonian Magazine, a review of scientific literature on the study of pheromones “found that most research on the topic was subject to major design flaws.” Pheramor isn’t the first app to prey on people’s scientific ignorance—Singld Out and Instant Chemistry are both dating companies with the same basic premise.

Scientific reliability aside, Pheramor and dating apps like it (see: The League) effectively betray the only good thing about online dating: openness and the possibility for unlikely encounters. “Genetically-optimized matches” or hyper-exclusive dating apps that require a LinkedIn profile take away the free-for-all serendipity of apps like Tinder or Bumble. For all their warts and unwanted dick pics, these apps expanded users’ circle of dating prospects to people they would never ordinarily encounter. And while Pheramor could theoretically introduce you someone like this, a little bit of the whimsy of chance is lost when a lab has rated your genetic and social compatibility on a scale of 1 to 10.

After the brief and overwhelming golden age of unlimited choice inaugurated by apps like Tinder, it makes sense that online dating denizens want to retreat back into bespoke, match-makey dating worlds, organized by genetics or college connections. Dating-app fatigue is real. But there has to be a better way to escape the “dating apocalypse” than withdrawing into a Gattaca simulacrum predicated on pseudoscience. While we’re looking for it, let’s all swab left on Pheramor and its ilk.