A class-action lawsuit filed in a US federal court last Valentine’s Day accuses Match Group – the owners of Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid dating apps, among others – of using a “predatory business model” and of doing everything in its power to keep users hooked, in flagrant opposition to Hinge’s claim that it is “designed to be deleted”.

The lawsuit crystallised an ocean of dissatisfaction with the apps, and stimulated a new round of debate over their potential to harm mental health, but for scientists who study romantic relationships it sidestepped the central issue: do they work? Does using the apps increase your chances of finding your soulmate, or not? The answer is, nobody knows.

“The science isn’t there,” says sociologist Elizabeth Bruch of the University of Michigan, who has studied online dating for a decade.

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The technology that enables online dating presents a golden opportunity for collecting the data that, until now, has been so hard to come by, and for developing the missing science of human connection. And since the companies are so secretive, and commercially oriented, a number of academic research groups have begun building their own apps – ones that will double as matchmaker and research tool.

Bruch and University of Michigan psychologist Amie Gordon will roll out their free app this summer, to the local student population to begin with, and they hope to have preliminary findings by December. Bruch says that unlike the commercial alternatives, theirs will be launched with full disclosure: “We don’t know who you’re compatible with.”

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