One man, six dates. What does the Economist think?

A week ago, @LisettePylant’s account of a six-fold date made headlines in DC. Justin Schweiger had booked six dates in 20-30min slots on a single evening. Basically, he tried to speed date unilaterally, and without announcing that he was doing so. The women noticed rather quickly, got together without him and became friends. Ms. Pylant exposed the experience on twitter. It was later featured in other outlets including the Washington Post.

First of all, this is quite wonderfully hilarious. Guy thinks the world about his own efficiency (and attractiveness?) and finds himself outmaneuvered before you can say ‘think..’. I guess, in future, Justin will only be able to date people who are either masochists or don’t read (the media) and he may or may not enjoy that situation.

What was going on here?

  1. That gender ratio. Why was he able to do that – one man, six women. Aren’t the women too busy, including with other dates? Or does that reflect the actual gender ratio in DC? – Well, 1:6 is a bit strong, but single women do outnumber single men in most neighborhoods in DC, as Holly Thomas blogs here. This situation is still current, and typical for the metropolitan areas of the East Coast. (For an eloquent analysis of gender ratios in the modern American dating world, see Jon Birger.)
  2. The ladies cracked the code. Contrary to much coverage on the event, I fail to find Justin Schweiger especially shocking. Most thinking ladies over 18 have encountered creepy behavior in the dating world at some point; sadly, it’s hardly news. What is new is that this one got public coverage – and that the women outdid the effect in solidarity. That is, by the way, the code to crack in skewed gender ratios: solidarity. Standing together as women and refusing to compete on standards. The principle has been well-known to economists for a long time, it is the good old-fashioned….trade union. It outdoes unequal (power) ratios by bundling individual demands.
  3. What now? While spontaneous and elegant, the ladies’ get together and agreement were indeed a budding trade union, from an economics point of view. (Not that trade unions can’t be spontaneous and elegant.) I would much encourage to continue on that principle and draw up a charter of standards in dating that DC women are not willing to do without. The more women subscribe, the less the gender ratio will be felt. Being the only date during one evening could be one standard, for example; or the only one, at all, before things get cozy. The bar will be as high as you set it, and firmer if many agree on it.

Opposites Distract

A Tale of Two Lives

My grandma Ann was a sporty, almost athletic woman who loved to swim. She had learned home economics in an exclusive boarding school and was a highly professional housewife. She knew the nutritional content of every staple food by heart and spent all morning cooking and straightening the house, aided by a maid. The afternoons were for looking after the kids and/ or paying and receiving calls. Her husband, my grandpa, worked long hours in his own law practice. I am not sure how much time their lifestyles left for joint leisure. On Sundays there was mass – which my grandma enjoyed and grandpa didn’t. And a bit of joint paying and receiving calls, according to a code that is no longer in use. (The maid would bring three business cards on a tray to announce a visiting couple: one from the wife and the husband each for grandma, and one from the husband for grandpa. Because a lady would not call on a gentleman.) My grandparents’ marriage project did not include a big plan for joint spare time; that was a secondary question if a question at all. They were from the same broader region but otherwise not very much the same. If they had something you could call hobbies, grandma loved doing sports with the kids, and churchy things. Grandpa went deer hunting with his buddies.Their tastes and views differed in books, music, politics and culture more generally. I know for a fact they voted for different parties all their lives. Opposites had attracted each other very much, they married young. It was more important for them to economically complement each other; grandma’s perfect running of the household including all nooks and crannies allowed grandpa to rise in his career, gain some notoriety in his profession and thereby build modest wealth for his family.

My other granny’s story is quite different. After secondary school, she had learned a trade that would earn her money. She worked several years as a commercial and legal secretary, and ended up running the front office of a regional court. Having turned down several marriage proposals, she may have started to worry parents and acquaintances with her insistence to marry for love alone. Finally, at the (then mature) age of 29, she accepted my grandfather who swept her off her feet. This marriage was two birds of a feather flocking together. Her teacher husband loved soft classical music, historic books and endless conversations with friends at least as much as she did if not more. They were both deeply religious; they also voted for the same party. The part time nature of their work allowed them to spend some leisure together and many family photos show the two of them with the kids. They took vacations and loved adventurous outings on their two huge motorbikes before the war did them part.

Love and technological change

What happened in the few years between my two grannies’ marriage dates? How come one follows a more traditional and one a seemingly more modern pattern? According to a paper by Lundberg and Pollak in 2007, two fundamental technical developments changed the lives of families in the first half of the 20th century: the surgence of household machines, and the pill. Before the advent of the machines, it was useful for partners to specialize, that is, for the husband to work and for the wife to look after the house and any children. Different skills sets and possibly different personalities in either half of the couple would allow this arrangement to work best. Tastes and likes were secondary, as Gary Becker’s seminal work on family economics underlines.

Household machines alleviated a housewife’s workload. A washing machine, even an antique one, allowed to handle multiples of the load that one could do with a scrubbing board on a basin. Coffee machines freed up one soul in the household to do something else for twenty minutes. This meant, that once the kids were in school, the woman could also go to work outside the house. Rewarded work made sense for women, and it made sense for their parents to invest in an education that would prepare for it. The pill (or other accessible forms of family planning) supported this trend as women could complete a full cycle of education well into their childbearing years. (On this one, also see Raquel Fernandez’s work.)

Women grew into a position to earn and to look after themselves. They did not need a breadwinner but won their own bread. In these circumstances, marriage was no longer a must. There were viable outside options for a young woman, at least economically; if probably at a social cost.

Love and leisure

Marriages became more of a choice than a necessity. They needed a joint fun component, and a leisure component. Joint leisure was made possible by the technological revolution in household machinery. In this world, husband and wife want to spend time together that they both enjoy. They want to have conversations for the sake of them, not because they are needed. To this end, it is recommendable to choose a partner that is similar in education and tastes. A partner that likes to do the same things in his leisure rather than a partner that occupies himself most efficiently in a complementary manner while his other half is also efficiently occupied in her job. The more salient joint leisure is in your life, the more opposites distract.

Social atavism?

The coupling of similar people is a feature we observe strongly in contemporary marriages. This so-called assortative mating has increased over time, and keeps increasing still. Partners are now usually close in education and wage, and also height, weight, and age. High-flying athletic lawyers tend to marry high flying athletic lawyers.  This does not mean that a regression on the social evolution over the generations is impossible. Opposites do find and attract each other sometimes, and it is not always clear where likeness ends and opposite-ness begins. In this day and age, however, there can be a tension between the economic reality and a traditional relationship model. Marriages between opposites last less long, on average, than those between well assorted mates.

How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Emotionally unavailable?! 3 Steps out of The Rut

You know what the words mean, I am sure. But let me briefly illustrate.

Thelma is an attractive woman in her late thirties. She has had several boyfriends, but always something was missing. She has been going out with Jack for nearly two years – exclusively but without any physical expression of love. Not even holding hands. Jack, a successful 45 year old, is also still living with his parents in their large house and has a hard time contemplating moving out. – Sensibly,  Thelma left before they hit the two year mark. The only people she has been attracted to since were still in a relationship.

What is going on here? Well, Jack is not really available for an exclusive relationship; his heart is safely parked at his parents’. But Thelma neither: she unconsciously picks people who could never offer a full, durable, emotional relationship. Where there’s no relationship, none can be broken. True risk safely avoided.

What do economists make of this? What is an ’emotionally unavailable’ person doing in economic terms?
She is not on the market. She is not buying, let alone investing. Keeps her money safely in a low or no interest savings account, while she goes through the motions of shopping. We are talking about an extreme risk aversion here, that for tops is unconscious. The aversion is so high it keeps you out of any chances of a substantial return on your investment. Risk averse people want insurance. Thelma and Jack insure against the essential risks of amorous relationships by keeping healthy amour out; the true mutual connection.

How doe we get the amour back in? What can be done?

  • Step 1 would be to make the process conscious. Instead of unconsciously avoiding productive risks, Thelma and Jack would consciously avoid them. Nothing wrong here, if that makes them happy.
  • If it doesn’t make them happy, then in the medium run, step 2 would mean a realistic assessment of the risks of investing. Are they sizeable? Certainly. But not higher for oneself than for others. (Thelma needs to reality check her self esteem. And correct upwards. One way to do this is to avoid people that drag us down with reproaches and criticism. Sometimes this means creating distance to formerly close chums. And creating more proximity with friends that lift us up and appreciate us.)
  • Step 3 would finally entail some stepwise and careful and proactive risk taking. Without inbuilt insurance. But with the option to dial back at any step if needed.

There are no guarantees. You may be hurt.

Or you may bond forever.

Holidays without A Better Half? – A 5-Step Survival Plan

I am not quite sure I should be writing this. After all, I am *everything but* without a better half. I have the world’s hunkiest husband, who is currently playing with two adorable little wild beasts on the corridor.
But, boy, do I remember how it was without him. In fact, it is a recurring nightmare that I have: being unmarried and having to decide among a bunch of unpalatable ex-es. These are nightmares that feel quite real. During the dream I genuinely forget that I am married. It’s scary and lonely. And the options look between dour and unfeasible. A group of friends and family that stand around, bewildered and without understanding, does not help.  – And then I wake up next to The Man and feel like singing Handel’s Alleluia, multi-voice.

In other words: dears, I know what I am talking about. Been there. You are not alone. From the vantage point of someone in safe haven, but with a good view of the ups and downs of single-hood, here comes my survival plan for your holidays:

1 – Read the biography of a great single man or woman. (There are MANY. Composers, writers, poets, politicians, successful entrepreneurs – each century has had a few, of both genders.) Take a step back from the couple focus.
2 – Promote this idea to your family: not everyone needs to have a partner. You may use evidence from the biography you are reading. (You don’t have to believe this yourself, but the real bunch that you want to take a step back is your family.)
3 – Focus on yourself. Pamper yourself, become yourself – just better. Train the muscles you’d wish you had, or the skill you’d like to have. Schedule a makeover with a pro, or a friend whose taste you trust. Beautify your best side.
4 – Be the person that is missing from another person’s life. This need not be ‘somebody’s partner’, but another helping hand at the family dinner, or with your cousin’s little wild kids, the community activities of the season, or in the places that lack staff during the holidays but are bitterly needed: hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, nursery homes, orphanages. You will never know how much you are appreciated till you try.
5 – Number three and four should keep you busy already. But if you have some downtime left: dream. Sit down with yourself and make your personal wish list for the next year. Stick to a maximum of three wishes total if possible. If that includes a partner, work on it and be specific: what are his/her five non-negotiable traits. Promise yourself you won’t accept a second date with someone that does not meet them. After all, dating is about spending one’s time wisely and economically for best results. That’s called optimization.

Happy Holidays!

Love from your Economist.

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…

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.

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.

Who’s in Your League?

Charlotte is an extremely attractive woman in her late 30s. She is college educated, compassionate, sporty (good skier) and her beautiful craftwork could make Martha Stewart envious. No kidding. It would be easy to write her ad without any exaggeration. She has never had a want of suitors since the age of 13, when I first met her. – Still, she has been just as extremely unlucky in love. After several broken relationships, she is just about to give up on the couple thing. One thing that did puzzle me was her choice of partners: while honest and friendly, they were quite average in about everything else including looks, education, interests and effort.

Charlotte, for all I can see, has never held out for somebody in her own league. I would rather place her film star looks, bright mind and exquisite taste next to a hard-working, highly educated overachiever. A category that neither of her former partners inhabited.
This prompts me to plough the literature for 5 facts to keep in mind when choosing your own league:

  1.  You need to set your own standard and search for it. If you don’t find the quality you are looking for where you are, (also if you don’t really know how good things can get) you need to cast your net more widely. This means online dating, singles groups and, why not, the classic matchmaker. It also means pursuing your values. Fighting for a cause, whether in politics, an NGO or in your neighborhood community will unearth people who think on your wavelength.
  2. Men tend to overestimate, women to underestimate their attractiveness. (And within each gender, more attractive people underestimate, and less attractive ones overestimate their prowess.) Says this research. What is more, men become especially overconfident with attractive women. In the light of this, ladies and gentlemen (and stunners and wallflowers) kindly adjust your earlier assessment of yourself.
  3. Your league is relative. It can always be higher than you thought, in the right environment. As several speed dating studies found, your dating opportunities depend largely on circumstance. So choose your circumstances wisely.
  4. People in your league tend to like the same things as you. Taste is a good proxy for education, and education and effort are reasonable proxies for achievement. Moreover, it is good to choose a partner that likes the same things as you and enjoys doing them together; this will enhance relationship quality later on says research quoted here.
  5. Your confidence signals who you are. Check here. In a world where people don’t know you yet, they will go by the signal you send yourself. If it places a high value on yourself, that is the value people will assume.

 

 

 

I want my soulmate NOW! Fast!

Despite all the enlightenment we have provided here already – finding The One can be a messy, arduous and possibly slow process. For the busy singles of today; is there any way of speeding it up, or even delegating part of it?  – This story may ring familiar.

Noah is a senior government advisor working 11 hour days. While he enjoys being part of the inner circle around his country’s head of government, he dreads not having time for dates. He had intended to marry by the age of 30. Now, aged 35, he is starting to worry. He has high demands for the type of woman he wants to marry, such as a success level similar to his. Either way, there will be little time for dates during the next year too. Elections are looming and a crisis has weakened the country. Noah’s job gets irresistibly interesting and important just at a time when the prospect of (not) settling down gives him sleepless nights.

Noah gives up and embraces the uncoolness of signing up with a traditional dating advisor. While he does not enjoy the soul-baring during the initial meetings with the advisor, he does appreciate that a part of the effort is now delegated. Actual dates are pre-selected with insight, and Noah learns more on fewer dates. Within a year, he finds his significant other, a cute and successful health trust CEO, just a year younger than himself.

The idea is as old as human interaction: intermediators or middlemen. (Traders, bargainers, heralds, other communicators…and matchmakers). They can work well in any ‘market’. Some recent Nobel prize winners have shown they can do wonders in the labor market.  The middlemen’s role is to specialize in the search, and the sounding of a partner to an extent. They help bridge the information deficit between the searching parties. And because they are specialized, they develop expertise in doing this, they can do it faster, and with a wider reach.

There is one condition: there need to be many of them who compete with each other. This ensures that they try to be ever better and ever more productive.

Dating agencies improve everyone’s luck simply because every client improves every other client’s luck by being there. Every individual search effort is multiplied through the agency and benefits others. The economists who found this out even suggested the state subsidize ‘computerized dating agencies’ (the article predates online dating) for the benefit of all!