As you may have read earlier, Ermintrude and I attended Tim Harford’s talk at 1 Alfred Place last Thursday. Following on from Ermintrude’s post about the first half of Tim Harford’s talk where he engaged us with the economics of happiness; I thought I’d fill you in on the second half of the talk which was even juicier… involving the economics of dating!
It may seem a bit strange upon first consideration that there have been studies carried out on dating, as economists ideally need large amounts of data in order to come up with any substantial conclusions. However, it turns out that the invention of speed dating has saved economists from turning up on their mates’ dates dressed in lab coats and toting clipboards. Vast amounts of data have been generated by speed dating events in the following way:
1) Potential participants sign up for the events, and in the process provide information about themselves in the form of gender, education, height, and earnings, etc.
2) Participants turn up to the event, and spend five minutes (or some other such short amount of time) chatting with each of the participants of the opposite sex, in short, having a ‘speed date’.
3) At the end of a speed dating event, participants turn in their dating cards, where they tick either one of two boxes: ‘yes’ or ‘no’, for each person they met. If they ticked a ‘yes’ for someone who has also ticked a ‘yes’ for them, they will receive each other’s contact details, and vice versa. A ‘no’ from either person means that neither of them would receive contact details.
This process, theoretically, keeps our daters honest. There may be a compulsion to tick ‘yes’ to every box to check who else has said ‘yes’ to them, but this would mean their contact details would be received by people they may not have liked. On the other hand, if participants are shy and tick ‘no’ for someone they did like, they’d never get the chance to see them again. Even if they ticked ‘yes’ and the other person ticked ‘no’, the other person need never know that they were chosen by our ‘shy’ participant.
So what did economists find out? Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, stereotypes rule. Both men and women prefer non-smokers with higher educations. Women prefer taller men with higher incomes, while men prefer slimmer women.
The results also show that no matter the calibre of men available at the event, women by and large ticked about 10% of their ‘yes’ boxes. For example, for every 20 men, women will always tick ‘yes’ to an average of 2 men, whether the group of men are shorter and less educated with low incomes, or the group consists of taller, higher income men with IQs over 130. Men ticked a higher percentage of ‘yes’ boxes, however this percentage also did not change across different groups of women.
Tim referred to this last phenomenon as a victory for the economists over the romantics – with the romantic ideal of ‘the one’ or ‘the select few’, and the economist’s view that the dating scene is, in short, a market, with consumers selecting the best of what is currently available at any point in time.
I took time out to test this theory with the other heifers in the pasture, at least one of whom has participated in speed dating events in the past. We came up with a few counter-points:
1) The way that speed dating companies set up the particular rules of the events can affect the data. For instance, one heifer pointed out that on her event, in order to find out how many men had ticked ‘yes’ to her, she had to tick at least one ‘yes’ herself, and this curiosity drove her to tick that box for the least offensive man. It also helped that instead of full contact details, our heifer only had to offer up her e-mail address; emails can easily be ignored and an email address is changeable as a last resort.
2) Participants who turn up to events where the participants of the opposite sex are less/more desirable according to the usual statistics, may themselves be less/more desirable, and their standards higher/lower accordingly. For instance, the type of people that would turn up to a speed dating event hosted by a university would be different from the type of people that would turn up to a speed dating event hosted by a pub.
3) The dataset is necessarily biased, as it is data based on a subset of the entire dating population, that is, the subset that would go on a speed dating event. Presumably the more romantically minded would not attend such an event, preferring instead to leave their chances of meeting their love of their life to serendipity.
I, Betsy, admit that although I would like to think of myself as an economist, I am of the more romantically minded (some people would call me hopeless, really). However, I do like the concept of using economics to make decisions in everyday life, in much the way that Tim Harford utilises economics in his FT column, “Dear Economist”. Therefore I propose a tongue in cheek question to all other romantic economists out there:
Would open relationships produce the most efficient pairings? If you are locked into a relationship, you are essentially monopolised, unable to try other ‘products’ on the ‘market’, which invariably leads to an inefficient market. What do you think?
For more information, read Tim Harford’s blog post on the economics of dating here: http://timharford.com/2007/11/business-life-the-economics-of-dating/