Sexonomics #2: dating

I’ve been on so many blind dates; I should get a free dog. Wendy Liebman

I only date stewardesses. Or maybe it just seems that way. Women always seem to be showing me the exits. Scott Roeben

A man on a date wonders if he’ll get lucky, the woman already knows. Monica Piper

Nothing defines humans better than their willingness to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs. This is the principle behind lotteries, dating, and religion. Scott Adams 


Dating is a form of courtship in which two people take part a social activity, such as going to the cinema or having a meal in a restaurant, in order to assess each other’s suitability as a partner. Traditionally the ultimate goal was matrimony. When marriage was more of a business or political enterprise dating was not especially prevalent, although there were sometimes clandestine meetings between lovers who tried to rebel against their parents’ will.. During medieval times, the importance of love in a relationship emerged as a reaction to arranged marriages, but was still not considered a prerequisite in matrimonial decisions. Lovers would woo their intended with serenades and ornate poetry. With the empowerment of the individual, the dynamics of dating began to change. In The 1700’s and 1800’s romantic love emerged as a motive for finding a final marriage partner. Romantic novels, poems and literature led to changing perceptions of the role of marriage in society. The courtship ritual evolved. In the Victorian Era young women would entertain gentleman at home in the presence of a chaperone, whose job it was to ensure that nothing untoward took place.  Among the lower classes it was often impractical to entertain at home so they began dating in public.

Technology has played a huge role in dating. In last week’s post I talked about the significance of birth control and abortion. But a number of inventions have transformed the way we court. I am only going to mention two here. The car was a major boon. Not only did it make it possible to travel further, but it also proved to be an excellent venue for .couples to get to know each other better.  And of course we have the computer, which has replaced the traditional village matchmaker.

Computer dating actually goes back to the late 50s. Through the years compatibility algorithms and matching software have become increasingly sophisticated and online dating services are becoming increasingly popular all over the world.  These firms tend to operate in a similar way. Customers pay a fee and post a personal profile, which typically includes a photo, vital statistics, their salary, educational level, personal preferences, and so on. Many sites let you to specify what you are seeking: “a long-term relationship”,a casual lover”, or “just looking.” If somebody likes your ad, they can e-mail you and perhaps arrange a date. The rapid growth of online dating has been a godsend for economists – these websites provide an excellent opportunity for data mining. They are a fascinating natural experiment which allows you to see how people actually behave. In his book Freakonomics Stephen Leavitt looked at a study carried out by the economists Günter J. Hitch and Ali Heretics, and the psychologist Dan Ariely with data from more than 20,000 active users of mainstream dating sites, such as, I want to look at their results.

What do people say about themselves? What interests me is the enormous gulf between what we say and what we really do. Undoubtedly online daters can be very economical with the truth in their descriptions. Maybe they are just narcissistic. They definitely seem to find it difficult to grasp the meaning of the word average; the majority claimed to be a lot richer, taller, slimmer, and better-looking than average. However, there were some users who were a bit franker. 7% of the men conceded that they were married, with 243 of these men reporting that they were “happily married.” But this honesty came with a logical prudence. Only 12 of the “happily married” men in the survey actually posted a picture of themselves. They were responding to incentives; they wanted to have a mistress but the fear of being found out by their wives led them to withhold photographic evidence of their infidelity.

Here is some  more of the information that came out of the study:

  • More than 4% of the online daters claimed to earn more than $200,000 a year, whereas less than 1% of typical Internet users actually earn that much.
  • Male and female users typically reported that they are about 2.5 cm taller than the national average
  • 72% of the women and 68% of the men described themselves as above average in looks
  • 56% of the men who post ads don’t receive even one e-mail
  • 28% of the women on the site said they were blond. As Stephen Leavitt quipped this would suggest either dyeing, or lying, or perhaps both.
  • These creative descriptions are of course perfectly rational. There is, like in the housing market, high inflation in the personal adjectives market. Potential partners will apply a minimum 20% discount to anything you see. If someone says they have average looks, you assume they look like Quasimodo. 

What kind of information received the most favourable responses? Online dating preferences seem to dovetail with the most common stereotypes about men and women:

  • Men who say they want a long-term relationship do much better than men looking for an occasional lover.
  • Women looking for an occasional lover have no problem attracting suitors.
  • For men, a woman’s looks are of fundamental importance.
  • For women, a man’s income is extremely important. But for men a woman’s income appeal is a bell-shaped curve: men do not want to date low-earning women, but once a woman starts earning too much, they can feel intimidated. 
  • For men, being short is a bigger disadvantage than being fat, whereas for women, being overweight is a killer.

These preferences are not fixed in stone. Supply and demand come into play. Daters adapt their tastes to what is available, like in any other market. Photos are the key. Men who do not include a photo get only 60 % of the volume of e-mails compared to men who do; with women this figure is 24% An unattractive, slightly overweight man with few qualifications and in a low-paid dead-end job  stands a better chance of getting a response than a hunk who says he makes $200,000 but doesn’t post a photo. If you can’t even post a photo, it is assumed that there must be something wrong with you.

Apart from all the information I mentioned above, the clients had to list their race and state what race or races they would be willing to date. They had two options for the latter question – “the same as mine” or “it doesn’t matter”. Approximately half of the white women on the site and 80 % of the white men declared that race didn’t matter to them. When they actually chose, the white women who said race didn’t matter sent about 97 % of their e-mail responses to white men. For men the figure was 80%. They wanted to come across as broad-minded but their choices reflected different preferences.

What does the future hold for dating? Technology is bound to remain in the forefront given that we have a generation that has grown up with computers, Facebook and Twitter. I imagine that online agencies will continue their growth and will become more professional, using increasingly sophisticated software. Dating may well spread to mobile phones. I am very much in favour of technology but I think offline activities are also necessary. We are always going to want physical interaction.

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