The economics of dating

We signal whether or not we're worth attention. (Comstock)

We signal whether or not we're worth attention. (Comstock)

Lisa Daily - Click by Lavalife

, Last Updated: 3:55 PM ET

The laws of economics apply to everything from the "pull" factor of your online dating profile to whether or not you can get away with scarfing down the very last scoop of guacamole at a party.

Economics is the study of "the market" (whether you're talking about the meet market or the supermarket), the incentives that drive our behavior, and how people exchange valuables, such as money, the remote control, and even engagement rings.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of a fascinating book on relationships and economics, Discover Your Inner Economist (Dutton, 2007).

What signals do you give off?:

According to Cowen, one of the most important economic theories in play with dating is something called signaling.  "Signaling is a kind of personal advertising," says Cowen.  "We signal when we wear fashionable clothes (or not), when we go to the right school, and when we send the right color of flowers. The cost or difficulty is the whole point of signaling, and it is the reason why signaling sends an effective message."

We signal whether or not we're worth attention: if we might sleep around, if we're smart enough to hold someone's interest. We signal if we'll make you look good at the company party, or if we might just get drunk and throw up on your boss's shoes.

The gifts we give send signals as well: Most men don't value flowers or diamonds, most women do. 

"Women value the objects as gifts, in part, because men do not care about them," says Cowen. "If I bought my wife the complete DVD set of Battlestar Galactica, she would suspect me of selfish behavior rather than dedication to her, even if she grew to love the show." The best gifts are the ones we, as gift givers do not value much ourselves.  The signal is this: "Such gifts show we value the gift receiver."

And often when we're trying really hard to signal one thing, (coolness, affection, wealth, desirability) we end up signaling something else entirely (desperation.)

We've all seen (and maybe written) profiles that are virtual laundry lists of who we are and what we're looking for in a mate, whether it's veterinarian Barbie or an opera-loving lumberjack. Must love cornbread stuffing, Hoagie Carmichael and field hockey...We'll stroll hand-in-hand through the flea market, searching for Italian cookware...walk our chocolate Lab "Bucky" to the Thai take-out joint every Thursday...

Our thought process behind such a specific profile is usually that we know exactly who we are and what we're looking for, and we don't want to waste a bunch of time dating people who don't fit the bill.

Should online daters ask for something so specific? Or should our profiles cover the highlights -- attractive, employed, intelligent -- in order to attract as many respondents as possible, and then cull the list down from there?

Keep your options open:

"Highly specific ads are an attempt to limit one's subsequent choices. They also preempt rejection by scaring off many potential suitors in advance. 'Don't get too close unless you want a big dose of me' is the implied message," says Cowen. This keeps a lot of people away, even ones who might be a good match.

"The number of responders goes down, and the woman hopes that the right man will see through her character and choose her," placing great faith in "the ability of her Mr. Right to spot the ad of The Matching Woman."

But even if we think we know what we want, we rarely actually do. 

Another option, Cowen suggests, is a profile that contains a photo, and is "accurate, signals high intelligence in a fairly straightforward fashion, but is otherwise bland."  You can say one or two wacky/interesting/idiosyncratic things to make yourself stand out, but you don't want to scare anyone off. In this case, you'll cast a wide net, attracting a lot of responses but you'll have to do the sorting yourself, via email, phone conversations and coffee dates.

So economically speaking, which is the more effective dating strategy?

It depends, Cowen says. "If you're a sharp chooser and willing to bear the costs of rejection and processing, (i.e., weeding through that inbox clogged with responses) you should go with the bland ad. If you can't stand being rejected, or think somebody else will be the better judge of a good match, a highly-specific ad would probably be better."

One final note, a crucial piece of information for daters everywhere:

Cowen cites in his book an individual whose "game-theoretic" analysis of whether or not to leave the toilet seat up used complicated mathematical formulas to conclude that "economizing hand motions was the key variable." The game-theorist concluded that we should leave the toilet seat "as is" -- after all, why go to all the trouble of putting it down if the next person might want it up?

Cowen's opinion, with regard to the toilet seat wars is that "such matters should be arranged to please one's wife. It is a symbolic recognition of her value."

That, and she won't fall in when she gets up in the middle of the night.


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