The Dating Market Explained By… Economics?

We explore how some basic economic principles can help you hone your search for love — and offer some surprising insight on whether or not you should play hard to get with your dates.

By Judy Dutton

hen you think about it, the dating market is just like any other market, really: You're "shopping" for a great mate. You have to "advertise" your best qualities. It requires an "investment" of time and cash, but
Loosen up on your target age range, or your educational or political preferences.
the "payoff" — love, maybe even a long-term commitment — is priceless. So, it makes sense that economists have analyzed how we meet and match up romantically, and they've come to some surprising (and often counterintuitive) conclusions. Here are a few of their findings that could improve your odds of hitting the romantic jackpot that could pay dividends long into your future.

Don't "search" for dates, "experience" them instead
Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality, has studied online daters and found that the traditional method of honing in on people you think you'll like — by height, hair color, salary, hobbies and so on — rarely leads to love. This approach, says Ariely, treats potential dates as "searchable goods," as though they were digital cameras that can be sized up by relatively comparable attributes, like megapixels and memory size. But in reality, if romantic partners could be considered to be "products," they'd be closer to what economists call "experience goods," such as wine, perfume, and art. With wine, for example, "You can read a description — white, red, heavy-bodied — but all the nuances you're not going to get from the description," Ariely explains. "You need to actually try it. The same thing is true for people."

The upshot of this information is that when you're surfing profiles online, "don't narrow your search too much," says Ariely. Loosen up on your target age range, or your educational or political preferences. Then, once you meet someone in person, avoid grilling your dates ("So, where did you go to college?") and just try to "experience" them by poking around a flea market or trying a new ethnic food joint together instead. That way, you can get a feel for how your date reacts to the world and whether you're truly compatible — which is far more effective than finding someone who's blonde, over six feet tall, earns six figures, or has other qualities found on your ideal-mate checklist.

Spend less time screening and more time meeting
Ariely has also found that, on average, online daters spend 5.2 hours per week searching profiles and 6.7 hour per week emailing other members — which comes to a total of 12 hours a week screening potential candidates. Yet they only spent 1.8 hours a week actually meeting people, and Ariely feels this investment of time is all wrong: "Eighty percent of their time needs to be spend meeting people, and 20 percent searching," he emphasizes. Since face time is the true make-or-break moment with someone, you will save yourself tons of wasted effort by proposing a coffee date sooner rather than later. This also keeps you from "building up" someone in your mind into a person that he or she isn't, which only sets you up for disappointment later.

Finding dates is a matter of supply vs. demand
It's Economics 101: the lower the supply, the higher the demand. And that means that in many places, women are in trouble, says Mark Regnerus, professor at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying. According to a report by the American Council on Education, in American colleges, 57 percent of the students are female, while 43 percent are male — a skewed ratio that forces single women to compete more for available men's attention. Once they graduate, the pool of successful, educated men is also small, so this imbalance continues. Certain areas of the country are also plagued with shortages of single men, most notably in the northeast. "The further west you go, the more men there are," says Regnerus. A surplus of eligible bachelors can be found in Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Picking up and moving, of course, isn't a realistic option for most people looking for love, but what is doable is to try tipping the gender ratio in your favor on a local level. If you're looking for men to date, head to a sports bar or the free weights section of your gym. If you're looking for single women, join a yoga class or book club. Suddenly, you'll be surrounded by prospective date possibilities!

A woman's salary matters, too
While it's well known that women like men with large salaries, one study suggests that a woman's paycheck can also pique a man's interest. Donald Strassberg at the University of Utah discovered
Dating someone with a big income is nice, but often, it comes with strings attached.
this by conducting a study of "women seeking men" personal ads on Internet dating sites that was subsequently published in the journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior. The ads were nearly identical, except that one described the woman as "lovely, attractive and slim," while another stated that the woman was "financially independent, successful, and ambitious." Once responses started rolling in, Strassberg was shocked to find that the successful, financially independent woman drew 185 responses, while the slim, attractive woman fetched only 129 responses. What's the take-home lesson for ladies? "Don't dumb yourself down. Talk about your success," says Strassberg. "There's no need to hide that. For many guys, that's going to be a plus."

In relationships, however, money isn't everything
Dating someone with a big income is nice, but often, it comes with strings attached — like the fact that such people often work long hours and don't have much time for a relationship. To factor this downside into the equation, Michael Cunningham at the University of Louisville in Kentucky presented men and women with written descriptions of two potential partners. One was a surgeon who'd typically earn around $300,000 per year who worked around the clock; another was a high school teacher who'd typically earn around $50,000 a year, but also had summers off and plenty of time to devote to a romantic relationship and building a family. When Cunningham asked his study subjects which candidate stood out as better dating and marriage material, the high school teacher trumped the surgeon among both men and women. The take-home lesson is this: don't let the lure of money make you lose sight of the fact that time is the ultimate precious resource. So even if someone isn't making bank, thank your lucky stars that you can while away the hours together.

Stop wondering whether you've settled
Due to a phenomenon known as "assortative mating," to a large degree, attractive people date other attractive people — which leaves average-looking people to date other average-looking people, and so on all the way down the chain. This phenomenon led Ariely to wonder: Do less attractive people feel short-changed in love? "For the rest of our lives, do we wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, 'Well, I wanted someone who was a 9 or 10, but given I'm a 4 or 5, I had to settle?'" Ariely explains.

To find the answer to this question, Ariely set up a speed-dating experiment asking people to pick not only whom they'd like to date, but which characteristics were most important to them in a partner. The result? Not surprisingly, attractive people valued attractiveness quite highly in others, but less-attractive people valued less superficial attributes in a partner, like intelligence or sense of humor. "They said, 'Oh, I don't care so much about looks," Ariely says. "The lesson here is that we all have to learn how to deal with the cards we're dealt by Mother Nature. It's a good thing to figure out what we can achieve and how to reorder our priorities according to that, so we can end up being happy."

Playing hard to get can work — if it's done correctly
In yet another experiment, Ariely had his study subjects tackle either a simple or difficult origami project. Afterwards, Ariely asked them how much they valued what they'd created. "We found that those who successfully completed their origami in the difficult condition valued their work the most, much more than those in the easy condition," he explains in his book, The Upside of Irrationality. "This is also why playing hard to get can be a successful strategy in the game of love. If you put an obstacle in the way of someone you like and [he or she] keeps on working at it, you're bound to make that person value you even more."

Judy Dutton ( is the author of Secrets from the Sex Lab and Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch…and What It Takes to Win.
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