How can a woman find her man?

Dear Economist,
much of your advice appears to be geared to men, who seem to be entitled ‘by tradition’ to be the active ones in courtship. What about women? Do economists have a view on gender differences in courtship? How can a woman find her man?
Sincerely, Emma

Dear Emma,

Well spotted. Much of the economic literature we apply to dating is indeed ‘non-gendered’ and gives the same advice to men and women. It looks like we are contradicting dating advice of the Mars and Venus kind.

But not quite. Economists have sometimes even assigned extreme gender roles. Lena Edlund rose to fame for a paper that assumed women were ‘sellers’ and men ‘buyers’ of sex, whether in a lifelong contract (marriage) or a temporary one (prostitution). The assumption is that women’s relative indifference to sex gives them a bargaining advantage.

Even if we want to take it a bit easier, the idea that women are sellers and men buyers in the dating game is not counterintuitive, and Dr de Bergerac found it to resonate with friends and family. Several successfully dating ladies reported the following activities as useful: putting up their profiles at online and other dating agencies, making sure they are socially active and well known (also see this article) and paying attention to their overall visual appeal. Exactly what a seller would do.

Try it out and let us know how it goes.

All the best,

Dr de Bergerac

What are good things to talk about on a first date?

Dear Economist,
it’s all very well identifying women you could be interested in. The problem is when you managed to get to the first step, i.e. the first date. What to do next? What are good things to talk about on a first date?
Sincerely, Nithin

Dear Nithin,excellent question. What you want are themes that give you valuable information about your date, but are not boring or scare her away. What does that mean? You actually want to ask questions that are easy maybe even fun to answer, yet relevant and substantial.

Economists have called this ‘ascertaining full information about easily researchable traits’. In a 1970 paper in the American Economic Review, Dale Mortensen suggested that relationship decisions are best taken by concentrating efforts on ‘easily researchable traits’, like education, intelligence, physical appearance, and family background. It’s better to spend much dating dialogue on these topics, rather than fuzzier ones, like for example ambition, resilience under pressure and potential for growth. How do you want to pin these down anyway?

Whatever you ask, finding out things is difficult (economists would say ‘costly’) so you need to think about where to spend your effort. You don’t want to spend it on stuff that’s a pain to see clearly about. In other words, stick to the easy and transparent stuff, stay away from the murky. If not you’ll spend much time and effort and be none the wiser.

Best of luck, and do check back in.

Dr De Bergerac

There are no women where I work. How do I go about finding a mate?

Dear Economist,

I am 40, never married, and more than ready to settle down. But I work in a sector that is virtually free of women. So, although I don’t smell, am not dramatically stupid or unattractive, I do not meet enough eligible women to find a soulmate.  Do you know a way out? –  Sincerely, Out with the Guys.

Lonely Guy

Lonely Guy

Dear Out with the Guys,

a word of comfort: you are not alone with your problem. We regularly hear similar stories from IT geeks, engineers, and the army staff…just to name a few. We actually also hear them from primary school teachers, nurses and nannies….in short, any job where one gender vastly outnumbers the other.

You are suffering from a situation that George Stigler (‘The Economics of Information’, 1961) would call ‘high search costs’. You can meet women, get to know and date them, but your ‘cost’ of doing so is much higher than in an evenly gendered market. You probably have to travel to meet a woman of your age, spend more money on gas, the phone and mail to keep in touch, and spend more time thinking about where to meet the right woman. All these are ‘costs’.

As you can read from our previous post, the first phase of the dating game can be seen as a search effort, similar to checking out various products before we know the quality range available in the market. Checking out an additional product provides you with a knowledge gain about the quality range. But, as the range is given, and won’t expand with searching, the benefit of getting to know an additional item – or person, rather – diminishes with each person met.  At the same time, the cost of meeting another person stays the same, for each and every additional person met. In your case, this cost is rather high.

Usually, a rational person stops searching when the additional benefit of meeting another person has diminished so far that it is equal to the cost of meeting another person. In your case, if we leave everything as it is, this situation would actually occur rather early. You would date few people before you settle, because the cost is just so high. In other words, you are readier to commit than some of your fellow daters.

This in itself makes you quite eligible for the other gender. Women tend to get serious with men who are ready to get serious.

On the other hand, we don’t have to leave everything as it is. You can lower your search costs, e.g. by using online dating, matching services, newspaper ads; and also, old-fashioned but effective: drawing on family and friends networks. If you want to maximize your search efforts even further, target your outings from the Guys’ Enclave towards places where you are likely to find many women: kindergartens, spas, cosmetic and shoe shops, aerobics, dance and yoga classes, classical music concerts, church and synagogue, and book clubs, just to name a few. Also, if you weren’t in a Guys’ Enclave previously, think back to that time and the women you knew then: anybody you would like to get back in touch with?  – Go for it (as long as she’s still free and not an ex) and reap the benefit of previously invested search expenditure.  – We don’t promise miracles, but the above efforts should dramatically improve your likelihood of meeting Mrs. Right.  FYI, Dr de Bergerac and her spouse (re)met like that, when actually already well past thirty, and so did a couple among their friends.

Now that we have more or less devised a strategy, let’s look at the likely outcome of a situation like yours. Being the majority gender may actually not be the worst thing (depending on the ratio..) especially if you are a guy. It is true that usually, the ‘outnumbered’ gender is the secret winner of a gender ratio out of sync, enjoying the competition for their favours, and dictating the market rules. So if more men compete for less women, the women dictate the rules. Turns out that in a dating market, that is not the worst thing. Joshua Angrist of the MIT found out that in communities where men outnumber women, there are more marriages, men earn generally more and parents of young children earn more. (How do Sex Ratios Affect Marriage and Labor Markets?, QJE 2002) Looks like in some areas of life, it’s ok to have the rules written by the ladies…

In any case, best of luck, and check back in with your success story.

Your Economist

How many people should I date?

Dear Economist,
I am usually a patient person, but maybe I am overdoing it. I have dated about five different girls, and more or less seriously, but I can’t decide myself. One’s advantages are another’s disadvantages. I know nobody’s perfect – but when should I stop? When can I be sure to have dated enough people to settle down?  – The process of serious dating isn’t exactly cost-free you know…your advice much appreciated!  – An efficient dater.

man waiting to settle

Dear Efficient Dater,

you are raising a very good question. The answer is, as you probably suspected, there is indeed an optimal number of people to date; a limit after which you can be confident with your choice.  – Economics provides a reason for why there is a limit, and statistics tells you when you have reached it. Let’s start with the economic part.

It was George Stigler, who, as far back as 1961, made a case for limiting one’s search. (He thought more about searching the optimal household appliance, but his reasoning holds just as well for dating..) Stigler says, any market has a given range of quality. We don’t manage to expand that range by searching more, we just get to know it better. In other words, the more you search, the closer you are to having tested the entire available quality range. This also means, with every additional person that you meet and date, your additional knowledge gain diminishes.

At the same time, the effort, time and money spent on an additional date do not diminish. So you are likely to have ‘spanned’ the quality range after a limited number of dates, after which additionals only cost time and money, but do not provide quality gains. Rational daters will settle after reaching this number.

So, where is that number, on average? The answer is twelve.  Knowing twelve people should be enough to know the quality range available in the dating market.  Peter Todd from the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research did the odds (in his paper ‘Searching for the next best mate’, ebda 1997). Following Todd’s ‘fast and frugal algorithm’, if you date twelve people and then choose the one further person that tops the list, you have a 75% chance of getting it right.

So, bottom line, dear Efficient Dater, you are not there yet. You need to hold out for another 7. If you are honest and stay out of the bases there’s nothing wrong with checking them out in parallel. Might be less costly, too.

Good luck, Your Economist

Dear Economist, I am shy. How will I find a date?

Shy Person





Dear Anonymous,

the answer depends on whether you are a man or a woman. Contrary to received wisdom: if you are a man, you probably do not need to worry. If you are a woman, there is some work to do.

If being shy implies being less well known or popular, shy guys can relax. Recent empirical evidence shows that women are less likely to choose a man that is more popular than they are. On the other hand, men are less likely to choose a woman that is less popular than they are. In other words, if you are a well known woman appreciated by many, you will have more dates. For a man, however, being well known and appreciated by many may backfire. Why exactly, we don’t know. Probably women do not wish to take the risk of having too popular a man, as he may have a large female following and thus struggle with monogamy…and for some reason, women with a large following do not raise this suspicion. Well.

If shy guys can relax, what about shy gals?  – Ladies, you better work a little on your popularity. Get out there, organize events and announce them (get well known), get up to speed on popular topics (sports, restaurants and bars) which guys seem to like, and the effort should pay off.

This finding comes from a study by Michele Belot and Marco Francesconi at Essex University (“Can anyone be the one? Evidence on mate selection from Speed Dating.” 2006) They tracked a group of men and women through a series of speed dating events and examined their reactions to varying encounters. It turned out that women rarely proposed to a man that received more proposals than they did, while the opposite was certainly true.