The economics of love

OKCupid uses math to explain dating success. It's part of a recent push to turn romance into a simple equation

Tracy Clark-Flory
January 14, 2011 2:40AM (UTC)

Earlier this week, online dating site OKCupid announced a peculiar new finding on its irreverent research blog: The more men disagree about a woman's looks, the more messages she gets on the site. Or, as the post's author, Christian Rudder, put it: "When some men think you're ugly, other men are more likely to message you. And when some men think you're cute, other men become less interested." It seems counterintuitive, and convoluted, but Rudder explained it like so: "Suppose you're a man who's really into someone. If you suspect other men are uninterested, it means less competition. You therefore have an added incentive to send a message." It's basic game theory, he said.

Along with other economic principles, game theory is one of the new popular tools in the world of dating and relationship advice. For the single-and-looking, these attempts to quantify attraction, to turn romance into a solvable equation, are immensely appealing. (Except for when it's used to explain the shortage of eligible bachelors in fairly stark terms.) There are countless self-help books out there about how to attract Mr. Right or become a "master pickup artist" -- but most lack that stamp of mathematical authority. With whispers of "psst, here's the foolproof secret" from so many different corners, there is something immensely comforting about an approach that reduces love to a conquerable algorithm.


Jose-Manuel Rey, an economics professor in Spain, developed a theory he dubbed "the Carol Syndrome" to explain why some attractive women are ignored by men in bars. He notes that this latest OKCupid research "is far from being a solid theoretical explanation" but speculates that it "may be seen as an experimental confirmation" of his theory. "When the preferences of most men are aligned to consider a woman really hot, the game-theoretic model ... explains the men's (rational!) mechanism of inhibition [the assumption that she is in-demand and therefore it would be a waste of their time to go after her], implying that the woman may eventually be approached by no one." He adds: "As a consequence, it could be expected that women whose attractiveness is perceived more diversely get more messages [and] dating proposals."

Economics and romance may seem an odd couple, but Paula Szuchman, co-author of the upcoming "Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage & Dirty Dishes," told me by e-mail: "We don't like to think of relationships as strategic situations. We like to think of them as above that, as all about love and romance and friendship. But they're not. Love is great, but it's not enough to keep a relationship intact for the long haul."

"Economics is the study of how people and societies allocate scarce resources," she said. "Relationships involve two people who are sharing scarce resources -- whether that's time, energy, libidos, money, ambition, patience, whatever -- and that's of course going to involve trade-offs." Imagine, for example, a woman who has hooked up with a guy and has to weigh the cost and benefit of either staying the night or sneaking out to get a better night's sleep in her own bed. "Either way, it's all about resources and trade-offs," she says. "If you start thinking instead like, what will he think if I leave, how will I be perceived if I don't leave, etc., etc., you muddy the waters. If you take out the static and focus on the actual trade-off -- sleep or no sleep -- you'll make the right decision. In theory."


That's the tricky part -- economic theory is not a perfect guide through the mysterious, jagged terrain of human emotion and attraction. I've been on OKCupid for nearly a year now and, despite its patently awesome algorithm for matching up online daters, and many a 90 percent or higher match, I've only been inspired to go on two dates. (Neither panned out.) There's something unsettling about having people reduced to a profile picture and a cheeky self-summary. I get caught up on their inability to capitalize, or the fact that they don't know the difference between "there," "their" and "they're" -- traits that apply to many a lovely person! It just doesn't seem so lovely in print. And yet, if I met these guys in person, I'm sure I would find some of them very charming and attractive. Whether it's chemistry or something else entirely, it's missing from the equation.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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