23 December 2006

On Dating

I always found it weird that there is no concrete model or theory behind such a fundamental human activity as dating. At its very essence, dating is about scarcity of resources, optimal allocation decisions, market segmentation, utility optimization etc. So why not approach dating as a market activity and why not analyze it using concepts from economics and business strategy?

In trying to develop such an approach, here are some initial definitions and assumptions for the dating market:

  • Each participant in the market has a specific "dating value" (DV) that depends on factors like physical beauty, status, financial resources and changes during life. This value is fundamentally subjective, as is the value of every other product out there. However, for simplification reasons I treat dating values as objective -this assumption does not affect the final conclusions.
  • There are substantial differences in the dating preferences between sexes (mainly for evolutionary reasons). In the trade-off between commitment (long-term relationships) and diversity (high number of sexual partners), women on average tend to prefer the first while men prefer the latter. These sex differences in preferences are the drivers of the interesting dynamics in the dating market –and the potential source of emotional pain...
  • The dating value curves of men and women are different. The reason is that men’s DV is driven more by status, while women’s is driven more by physical beauty. These factors reach their peaks in different ages. Thus, as the graph below shows, men tend to reach the peak of their DV later in their lives than women. Women on average have an earlier and steeper DV peak.
  • Emotional Attachment (what is most commonly called "love") can be a confounding variable, but I consider it irrelevant in the model. The reason is that its influence is limited in period and it occurs AFTER objective factors and rational decisions have played their part.When they are about to commit, both sexes are trying to maximize Mating Value, that is to get a partner with as high DV as possible.
  • High DV attracts high DV.

Moving to analysis from a man’s perspective now, the big question is when to commit.

From the assumptions and graph above it is obvious that men should commit only when they are their peak of their DV.

There are two problems however:
-One is that the exact path and peak of each individual DV curve is not known. People believe in their potential to increase further their DV, but in reality life is uncertain.
-The second problem is that sometimes being in a committed relationship has positive effect on someone’s life, in other words, when people get married they don’t have to spend time and resources in dating, they focus more on careers and consequently they increase their DV much more

I believe that the best way to overcome the above problems and answer the “when to commit” question is to use the fundamental condition MR=MC.
Revenue is the utility derived by “dating more” (quantity) and dating better (quality). Cost is the resources spent on dating as well as the lack of the benefits of a committed relationship (emotional stability, etc.) In a man’s early life, Revenues tend to increase higher than Costs. But when Marginal Costs (MC) are becoming equal to Marginal Revenues (MR), well, then its about time to settle down.

One interesting question is: if men most of the time think that they can further increase their DV (ambition is wired in our genes with obvious evolutionary utility), why they actually do commit at any point? The answer is that men do pay a risk premium. They understand that there is uncertainty in life, and they are willing to commit now with someone that can potentially be of lower DV, just because of risk aversion. We can see how the risk premium in the dating market increases in cases like after wars and disasters. People feel the volatility in their lives more and consequently are willing to pay a higher risk premium and settle down easier.

How do the above explain different patterns in different markets?
In dating markets like NY or London where there are many upward mobile “high-fliers”, turnover is high and committing is very rare –exactly because people think they have lots of upside potential and they can do much better.
On the other hand, in societies characterized by low social mobility, people tend to commit early. The reason is that they feel that they have limited upside in their DVs, so no reason to wait...


Anonymous said...

In dating markets like NY or London where there are many upward mobile “high-fliers”, turnover is high and committing is very rare –exactly because people think they have lots of upside potential and they can do much better.

Isn't it, however, in these markets also that people consume psychological services and pills by the bucket so as to ease their "upward mobility stress"?

Konon said...

Maybe they do. Maybe they think that psychological stress is worth the upisde potential. Or maybe they are just trapped and they should better go back to their villages.

But this is not my point.
My analysis was descriptive about dating, not normative.

Anonymous said...

I think that your whole article is all about stating Darwin's theory on mating using economical terms. In general, the theory fits to reality but it ignores so much in so many ways...

I think that when it comes to behavior, trying to explain things by producing an attractive, generalized yet simplistic model is definitely not the way to approach the truth. All I wanna say, is that being an economist yourself, you may have developed a bias to see and explain the world by an economist’s point of view, which to me, means that you take very complex behaviour deriving from a very complex system (the brain) and break it down to the simplest explanation using unjustified assumptions. This technique may work for explaining and predicting markets, but I am not sure to what level it works with explaining behavior.

You are surprised that there is no concrete model explaining dating, but I think that if there was one, we would have to be robots. Human brain is the biggest mystery in nature and psychology (not to mention economics) with the tools that it has today, is far behind from explaining it.

For decades, on the one hand, social scientists have criticized economic models for assuming too much rationality, and on the other hand, economists defend the models as useful approximations. They cleverly managed to make the study of human behaviour neat and clean, but they pay a high price in realism. They sometimes assume that what people pursue in life can be tidily summarised in a single psychological currency, namely pleasure, happiness, or “utility”; and they go even further, by assuming that it is pursued with unwavering rationality.
After centuries of basing their assumptions on this logic, economists are now fighting the doctrine that has dominated their fields for much of the 20th century: the idea that people act rationally and make economic decisions based on mathematical equations.
I will finish with Viner’s excellent quote:“Human behavior, in general, and presumably, therefore, also in the market place, is not under the constant and detailed guidance of careful and accurate hedonic calculations, but is the product of an unstable and irrational complex of reflex actions, impulses, instincts, habits, customs, fashions and hysteria.”

Konon said...

My main problem with your arguments is that we already find trends and analyze “emotional” behaviours like aggressiveness, sociability, altruism etc. with evolutionary or economic terms (check Dawkins or Gary’s Becker work on how people make decisions in their everyday lives). Yes there is some unpredictability, but there are also general trends, or factors that reinforce or prohibit specific behaviors. Then why should dating, such a fundamental biological function be out of reach of any systematic approach? There is no scientific reason.

So, I think that the main source of your criticism is emotional: you just feel that dating is or should be too “romantic” to try to describe it with economic or evolutionary terms. But I do not negate the beauty of romantic love. My analysis has to do with the period before and after the attachment occurs. Why do we choose to flirt with a specific person and not another? And why, after the emotional attachment period is over, we decide to dump someone but decide to stay with another? Some of the answers are in the post.

I cannot resist a final point:
The way u used sceptical arguments (complexity and mystery of brain) to support that we cannot claim anything systematic about human nature, reminds me of the usual response of religious fanatics to the theory of evolution. “You may give us all the evidence of the world, but we still don’t buy it, because we will never know all the details; and even if we do, we will never be sure that there will not be any new evidence in the future”. Scepticism in the service of dogma…

Anonymous said...

I agree with your (Darwin's) theory as I am an evolutionary psychologist myself. I just think that we should not be satisfied by believing that it is the whole story. There are so many things we do not know yet (about the biology-chemistry of dating)...

My argument was a little aggressive because economists always try to break things down to the simplest form; and I am not sure that it works with psychology. That is all. I agree with your theory though and I do not believe in "romantic love" as I think that we are just an automatic.

Since you mentioned Dawkins and religion, judging from the last book of Dawkins (The god delusion), I think he is getting a bit old. Although I agree 100% with his arguments, I felt exactly the way fasists would feel by reading fasistic books. We are all atheists and we are happy to confirm our beliefs through this book. We are the clever ones!

He hasnt understood religion, he just says it is wrong-hmmm not convincing enough for the billions of people who believe in God. Why is religion so spread across cultures and ages? Do we have a module for religion? If you dont know, you can write 1000 books saying tha God does not exist but do you actually offer anything substancial? All these said by someone who has the "Selfish gene" in every edition :-).Well, sorry for changing the subject; discussion is my passion and sometimes I cannot resist.