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Power, Commitment and Dating: 5 Lessons from Jean Tirole

Jean Tirole recently received the prize in memory of Alfred Nobel for Economics, for his work on firms’ market power. Understanding how his sharp insights translate into the world of dating took me considerable mulling over, although it now feels obvious upon hindsight.

You probably all remember a beau that casually dated many women at once, “stringing them along” without making up his mind on who he should become exclusive with. Or a woman that nourished many admirers’ hopes for a long time, without settling with any one, but also without letting any one of them pursue another woman. Such is the nature of power in the dating market. And Tirole’s insights are highly relevant (and make for wicked strategies, actually).

Here are five key lessons:

1. People with power in the dating market can effectively ward off competitors. For a description of what that might look like, see above, and dig in your high school memories.

2. You can tell commitments from non-commitments, even in a powerful person. True commitments are actions that are hard to reverse. For example, if she moves house to be near you, that would be a commitment. As would be a publicly announced engagement, or, of course, marriage. Declaring the relationship exclusive to close friends, and to any admirers or former dates probably also counts. However, spending time with you, being intimate, and/or being generous with you, is no commitment. It can be stopped at will.

3. Dating market power is hard to maintain. Warding off a competitor is costly; it will take time and effort to string along that one woman that is already turning her head towards someone else, or that one admirer that is about to give up.

4. But power can be broken. If put under the right kind of pressure, the monopolist beau or belle will behave as if powerless. If the above described effort to maintain power is altogether more painful than losing that person from one’s circle of influence so to speak, then the powerful dater will let his subject move on. So the trick is to push the boundaries: if you are the competitor, i.e. the dating market entrant that would like to snatch one worthy date from the circle around the beau, just keep the lady of your intentions as busy and entertained as you can. It needn’t be with dates; if you have other avenues to meet her or engage her along her interests, even without you being involved (sports clubs, work, volunteering, your friends etc), do so. Make sure the monopolist beau will have a hard time keeping up (or finding spare minutes in her calendar). If she is not his favorite, he will let go.

5. Building up that kind of dating power from scratch can be a ton of work. Obtaining uniqueness in the dating world, to the extent that one can exercise market power, is comparable to  investing until securing a patent. What could those investments look like in the dating world? Building up a network, organizing social events, fun activities and gatherings, attracting and hosting interesting conversations…are all activities that enhance popularity and thereby dating power. It might also help to hit the gym three times a week until in ship shape. In some cases Miss or Mr monopolist may have a huge advantage on these accounts; too huge for anyone to follow. If a potential follower fails to realize (aka be impressed by) the size of the task, a stiff competition can ensue and the leader effectively be leapfrogged. Ha!

No guarantees when you apply any of this in real life…

Stop Worrying About The Kilos: Shapely Women, These Are Your Times!

Are you worried about those thighs? Does your bum look big in that? Well, if yes, rejoice.

A British study has recently found that men under pressure prefer shapely women. The researchers split a group of about 80 men randomly into two groups of about forty participants.  (The fact that the split was ‘random’, e.g. by lottery, is important. This means that each man had an equal chance of ending up in either group. And that the groups can be expected to be fairly similar after the split; similar in things you can see (like height, weight..) and and things you cannot see (like motivation, mood..). This is why true economists lurrve this type of experiment. But I digress…)

One group was asked to solve maths puzzles in front of a critical jury (howzat for being put under pressure), the other didn’t have to do anything. Both groups were then, independently, asked to rank pictures of women for attractiveness.

And lo and behold, the stressed out men preferred heavier built women. (The relaxed men preferred slightly underweight women.) Men under pressure need love handles. The researchers think this is because weight signals age and maturity and stressed men would appreciate the help of a mature partner. Yours truly thinks men also unconsciously know that those thighs come in handy in times of hunger or other economic distress.

This is consistent with another trend: in times of economic crises, the centrefolds in Playboy show heavier and older women than in times of growth. In economic drought, heavier women are hot, thinner women are not.

So, to the extent that the world is still recovering from the recent depression (which it is), your type, darling, sets the trend. 

 

There Is Just No Man!

I don’t know about you, but I have just met one beautiful and accomplished single woman too many. There are three, no, wait, four, acquaintances on the top of my head, spanning the twenties to the forties, who are stunningly gorgeous, pleasant characters, academic and professional high achievers – and single. And it’s not that they want to be; they just happen to be single. They would love a man that is a good match for them, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone eligible around.

What is happening here? Well, Your Economist has three theses on what’s going on. And three antidotes.

  1. Don’t be too modest. Many beautiful high achievers, I am sure, have been told from an early age to be humble and self-effacing. To counteract the stunner effect with an overdose of modesty, so their classmates and relatives can bear the sight and sound of them. That trick may have worked for social integration, but it is a killer on the dating market. Robust evidence shows that popular and outgoing girls are asked out the most. So, darling: get yourself on that pedestal. Be the one to announce the student union activity, the new task force at work, or the new charity project at church. You want to be that girl behind the mic that has all the eyes and ears on it for a moment.
  2. Cast your net widely. If you are ‘rare’ on any trait (rare beauty, rare intelligence, rarely sporty, rare height…) whoever matches you will be equally ‘rare’. If there are not enough eligible people where you roam, roam in other places: go online, visit that aunt on the other coast, let your friends set you up. Let go of the thought that the internet and blind dates are for losers. They are not. They are for choosers.
  3. Make. Time. If you live a lifestyle that only works for a childless single, then that’s what you’ll end up being. If you work endless hours and weekends; if your scarce leisure time is planned out without flexibility, then where will a partner and maybe a family fit in? When will your radar be relaxed and clean enough to register Mr. or Mrs. Right, and recognize them as such?

No guarantees. But these three potions should let an eligible man or two appear.

Germany: Flirt like Champions

3 Teutonic Techniques To Consider

The soccer championships were a joy to behold. Well, mostly. And most media outlets agreed that the right team won in the end, pointing out new and old reasons that might have made the German Mannschaft strong. The media’s love affair with Germany is not yet over; suddenly the country is supposed to be good at about anything. So what about dating?

A solid tradition of romanticism not withstanding, Germans aren’t exactly famous as lovers. One reason may be that they don’t really flirt. It may feel too light weight in a country where every puddle has depth. So this is what Germans do when approaching a relationship. (Caution, the claims of this entry are based on a selected sample of barely 30, including interviewed friends and personal anecdotes. My own passport confirms the qualification to comment, by the way.)

  1. Be an open book. As the Spiegel once eloquently analyzed, Germans signal interest by opening up about themselves, their experiences and views – the more personal the better. This can happen pretty fast, also in completely sober persons, and strike the uninitiated as emotionally incontinent. But Your Economist approves. It cleans up the information asymmetry early on and lets you know what you are in for.
  2. Expect mutuality, and forget double standards. If you want to date a German, you need to e.g. let go a little of the ‘man pursues, woman responds’ notion. German men will expect women to call or write about as regularly as they do, or otherwise assume there is no interest. Your Economist approves. Mutuality makes for a well negotiated pareto optimum.
  3. Prefer action over words. When the time is right to initiate the relationship, most cultures use some form of declaration, i.e. one side or both put their feelings into words. This is true for most Latin cultures, both of the Americas and even Scandinavia if you believe Knausgaard. But not Germany. Most Germans reveal their feelings as (subtle) actions first.  – From the Economist’s perspective, this is a double-edged sword. It is efficient, for sure. But actions can carry many meanings and thus be misunderstood, probably to a higher extent than language. The more transparent contract may be the one with words.

Bottom line, these three principles will help you score a few goals. But improvement is always possible.

The Price of Naptime

You know what’s the best time of the day? If you are a parent of young children that is. Naptime. Those 1-2 hours in the afternoon they nod off and let you be. One good hour for mum and dad to do what they want, alone or, together. Read a book, write a blog, engage in a passionate conversation. Essential. Restoring. For body, mind, soul – and sanity.

Of course, this one hour is only worth so much because the other hours of the day are filled with toddlers’ laughter, their crazy and creative ideas, needs, energy and wisdom. It is a clear case of diminishing returns. Given that this is one hour only, it is valued highly. One hour more would still be fun, two hours more (of productive solitude) would be helpful, but three kid free leisure hours would probably max out the fun, and any further minute would be boring and lonely.

Ok, just wanted to quickly get this message out before a little chocolate stained finger tries out my keyboard, as the soft steps on the corridor seem to announce…

 

Dating in the Times of Piketty – part II

This is the second part of our musings on dating in a more unequal world. As we discussed in part I, we have a few relevant case studies, both historic (feudal Europe) and contemporary (countries with largely Western culture and relatively high inequality, say parts of Latin America). Still, both sets of cases do not fully reflect the situation developed Western nations are gliding into according to Piketty.

Let’s see what is different and what that means for us.
Different from feudal Europe:

  1. Agency of women. In contrast to Jane Austen’s times, women now have voting rights, full property rights, can marry and divorce as men can, and are active in politics and business. The first born daughter may well end up running the family business. (No need to smash the entail, Lord Grantham.) We also know that women, on average, tend to be more left leaning in politics than men. Summing up, this means on the one hand, that hypergamy will likely be an attractive option for both genders (see part I) and courtship patterns may change. Not only will we see groomed young women queuing and trying to prove their virtues to the Mr Darcys, we will also see groomed young men queuing and trying to prove their virtues to, say, Paris Hilton. On the other hand, women’s agency has shifted the political center to the left. This makes it more likely that the bottom 99 percent will oppose an unequal world and vote for a politician that can offer a credible route out of it. Finally, it will also mean that men and women overall have more occasion to meet and mix, at university and work, say.
  2. Wealth is mostly represented by capital, not land. Capital can grow; land only up to a limit. So overall, social mobility in Piketty-land should not be quite as restricted as in Austen-land.
  3. Internet, social media. Any return to inequality will be well documented and well known. The fact that Piketty stirred up the world in so short a time, even the fact that I can write and share this very blog, are witnesses to this change. The average people can see the rich people’s life style more easily, more completely and can choose to covet or to criticize it. Facebook is not exactly a paragon nexus of social mobility, but certainly more so than an Austenian ballroom. The fact that average yours truly is facebook friend with some royalty, as well as heir/esses gives reason for hope. Mrs Bennet’s duty is still valid, but got a little easier. The wealthy networks are more infiltratable.

Different from both feudal Europe and quasi-feudal contemporaries:

  1. Smaller families. This should, on average, make it a bit more difficult to spread inherited capital widely. There are simply fewer heirs and heiresses to marry off.
  2. Longevity. The overall life length is of relatively little interest. What matters is the length of productive life, which seems to expand only slowly or not at all. A longer productive life would give more opportunity to run business risks and thereby accumulate wealth; more opportunity for social mobility. Still, longevity alone already means a longer time span in which heirs need to stand on their own two feet, before cashing in.

Despite all these differences, our main prediction from part I remains. Marriage will be more important a means to access wealth than it is now. And wealth will therefore play a larger part in choosing our partner. The downside is, obviously, that loveless marriages are likely to become, once again, a distinct and accepted possibility.

If Piketty is Right – What Does That Mean For Dating?

I assume by now you have read the buzz about Thomas Piketty’s recent book (for example here or here). There has been some debate about his results, but that seems to be settled. His main scary prediction is that most developed nations seem to be headed for a very unequal world, with few people owning most of the wealth and passing it on through inheritance, and most people owning relatively little and not having the chance to amass wealth through their own work.

Now, what does this mean for dating? In his book, Piketty painted a return to the (economic) world of Jane Austen. We won’t see a complete return to Jane Austen in the dating world, because gender roles have changed, and clear-cut male/female roles have blurred since then. But let’s go through the possible outcomes for an average person vs. a rich person, not distinguishing different impacts for men and women for now.

Average wo/man

You will face a world where your chance of getting rich through marrying the right person (a rich heir/ess) are much higher than today, and of getting rich by getting employed and working hard are lower than today. You still have a chance of getting rich through entrepreneurship, but the odds are probably not better than today.

In practice, this means that the skill of detecting rich heirs and infiltrating their networks successfully are now more highly valued; and the skills needed to succeed academically and professionally decline in relative value. At the same time, wealth of a partner may become more important relative to his/her other traits.

As a matter of case study, we could compare the dating arrangements in countries that currently have a fairly equal wealth distribution (say Northern Europe) with those that don’t (some Latin American countries). Let me confess that I, an average woman, have dated in both contexts. And what I have seen largely shows that rational human beings adapt to the distribution of wealth. ‘Marrying well’, ‘eligible bachelor’, ‘a catch’ – are all acceptable expressions to use in the unequal, but not so much in the more equal world. Family and friends share knowledge on wealth-related eligibility of young men, and this is clearly a highly ranked trait in the less equal world. Networking is proactive, and relationships are cultivated with people of influence (Austen would write ‘consequence’.) Academic and professional advancement is still fostered and valued, but also because it allows mixing in the right circles. In the more equal world, such considerations would be more criticized and sometimes consciously ruled out.

This is also reflected in the content of popular TV. Hypergamy (women marrying up) is a big theme in most Telenovelas, still prevalent in Sex and the City but not so much in Lindenstrasse or let alone Wallander. In the literature, Saint-Paul skilfully shows that hypergamy (women marrying up) increases as inequality increases.

Rich wo/man

You will likely face a longer queue of suitors (suitresses?) than nowadays. And many in that queue will have a (legitimate and rational) economic motivation as part of the package. If you want to sort out the suitor that is free of such concerns, you may need a more elaborate selection mechanism than nowadays. Think of Portia, the rich heiress in the ‘Merchant of Venice’. The correct suitor chose the leaden box over the gold and silver ones. Or of Turandot, who wanted to single out the smartest by a tough riddle. And then correctly married a refugee. Fighting through a hedge was good enough for Sleeping Beauty (and that example doesn’t really count because she married a social equal). From the male perspective, Cinderella‘s shoe as a selection mechanism may be hard to replicate. Natural beauty, on the other hand, seems to rain equally on all social classes. And some talents can be tested (Rapunzel‘s singing voice). Effectively, all hypergamous women and men in the fairy tales had to prove their true character through a complex action. Which is why some hard work will still pay off.

 

 

Mothers As Benign Dictators: 3 Economic Problems Solved By Motherhood

We have been hearing a lot about things mothers worry about, problems they see and experience more than others. I would therefore like to dedicate this one minute read to three problems that true motherhood effectively solves.

1. Communal goods. Goods with more than one proprietor rarely work, see communism. A pasture that belongs to all shepherds of a town usually gets overused (economists call this the Tragedy of the Commons), and a kitchen in a student flatshare accumulates dirt or more. This is because one person can load the costs of his or her actions onto others without paying for them. Well, we only have interest in loading costs onto others if we don’t care for them too much. Mothers Care. Big time. Altruism undoes the Tragedy of the Commons because we care about others’ woes as much as our own.

2. Externalities. The process of being able to unload our costs onto others is called externality. It does not only happen with common goods, it also happens in pollution, excessively loud music etc. Externalities have been known to happen even between people who like each other. Like siblings, say. So called omniscient planners can detect and prevent externalities. Like, hm, mothers. They know. They see. They act. Turn down that blaster.

3. Natural Monopolies. A natural monopoly arises when it does not pay to have more than one provider of a good or service. There is then a risk that this sole provider charges too high a price or excludes people. I would reckon that in many families the car is such a natural monopoly, or the TV…or any asset that is too expensive to buy twice and sometimes hard to use by more than one person at once. In these cases too, mum can take a stand and manage access with fairness and altruism. Bloccupying the TV or car is not a sustainable strategy with most mums, my mum included….

In short, mothers can undo those problems that economic theory has found a so called ‘well meaning dictator’ can solve. The issue is that in the great wide world, well meaning dictators are a rare species. In our families however, we may know one or two.

Love and Work

I wanted to write a post that matches a seasonal date and picked 1st of May, which is the day of work (or labor) in many countries. And just as I am looking for an inspiration to write about Love and Work, a domestic discussion dawns upon me that is right on theme. Best Husband is not thrilled at yours truly working too much in the office and too little at home. He’s got a point: contrary to the mainstream, he really shoulders the bulk, some 90%, of our housework. He has also, for an extended time, been a stay-at-home-dad.

So what would a wise Economist advice? Who should do what in the home, and how much? Here are three points that should guide your decision:

  1. Comparative advantage. Old theory, still true. Who of you is comparatively faster and better at household chores (compared to other tasks that are waiting, such as childcare and work outside the house) should do more of them (and less of the other tasks). Putting all tasks on the table together may aid the negotiation.
  2. If you want more kids, make sure the woman doesn’t do too much. An Australian study (Craig and Siminski, Soc Pol 2010) found that the higher the workload of wives in a household, the less likely the household was to decide for a second child.
  3. Absolute workload matters more than relative share of husband vs wife. In the study mentioned above, the relative share showed no effect on fertility decisions. It doesn’t matter to the wife if the husband alleviates her load, or if hired help does. (Actually, the latter should be more popular, because the wife may want to spend her newfound leisure with her husband..rather than see him work.)

Post Easter: How To Resurrect Something

Do you need to resurrect something? Say, your relationship? Your love? Feelings are just gone? Oh dear. Sigh.  – Afraid, whining doesn’t help you guys (as my daughter’s sensible daycare teacher tells her). ‘Boo-hoo does not help.’

Here are three things that do:

  1. Act as if the feelings were still there. Seriously. Our mind and body like to act in congruence. Yes, most of us are born honest, and like to stay that way. Our thoughts, words and actions feel best to us when they are in sync. If they are not, we adjust one (or more) of them so they are in sync again. The state of not being in sync is called ‘cognitive dissonance’, and the theory around it has been around for a while (since the 1950s). What is more recent is the empirical proof of this theory. I particularly liked the experiment by Elliot and Devine (J of Personality and Social Psy, 1994). The economist in me would have preferred a larger sample size, but I must say I believe the results.
  2. Talk as if the feelings were still there.
  3. If things start feeling off, refuse to change your behavior. Keep acting and talking as if your feelings were as strong as you want them. In that way, you force your feelings to adjust, while words and deeds stay constant.

Keep at it. It should do the trick. Hint: it also works the other way round if you want. I.e. you can use your thoughts to influence your actions (to become better at dieting or sports, for example). Just saying.