Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Economics of Speed-Dating

The statistics:

Indeed, the data are here; we use them in a homework assignment in our book. The data were collected by Ray Fisman and Sheena Iyengar, an economist and a psychologist at the business school here, and they summarized their findings in this paper:

We study dating behavior using data from a Speed Dating experiment where we generate random matching of subjects and create random variation in the number of potential partners. Our design allows us to directly observe individual decisions rather than just final matches. Women put greater weight on the intelligence and the race of partner, while men respond more to physical attractiveness. Moreover, men do not value women’s intelligence or ambition when it exceeds their own. Also, we find that women exhibit a preference for men who grew up in affl­uent neighborhoods. Finally, male selectivity is invariant to group size, while female selectivity is strongly increasing in group size.

Maybe no surprises here, but that in and of itself is quite interesting...

And the economics, from and interview with Ray Fisman (HT MicroMotives):

3. Does your study measure how well what people say they look for matches with what they actually look for?

Most of what I do is work on corruption in poor countries. If I want to know how much someone is paying in bribes, I’m not going to ask them, “How much did you pay in bribes last year?” I’m going to say, “The guy down the street from you, who looks pretty much like you, how much did he pay?” Similarly, in the speed-dating study we ask people, “What do you care about?” We also ask them, “The average man, what do you think he cares about?” But then we actually see how they behave in the game. And, not at all surprisingly, what they say the average man cares about lines up much more closely with what they actually reveal through their actions than what they claimed they cared about beforehand. In particular, everyone — both men and women — says they care less about physical attractiveness than the average.

4. Do you think speed-dating is more efficient than traditional search methods?

In some sense, it’s efficient: there are all these slice studies on how 10 seconds’ worth of observation is as predictive of your experience with a professor as a semester’s worth, and they’ve reduced it to 2 seconds and that’s just as good; and they’ve reduced it to just a photo and that’s pretty good, too. So you learn a lot in four minutes, perhaps as much in four minutes as you do in a much longer superficial interaction like, say, a date. So, this does meaningfully provide you with 20 rapid-fire dates, to the extent that we form as much of an impression in 4 minutes, or 10 seconds, as we do in 4 hours. The thing that’s left out of this neat decomposition of people into attributes, though, is actually learning to love someone. And that’s what I think is kind of missing. Focusing on people as a bundle of attributes almost makes people think about this decision in the wrong frame of mind.

5. Do you think people become unwilling to commit because of all the choices dating services enable?

Yes. And the way that you can make these choices — just the very fact that it’s set up in this way — distorts the way people choose. There was an article in the New York Times on a backlash against Internet dating, and I wonder to what degree that’s at least partly as a result of these sorts of realizations.

6. The results of your speed-dating studies, particularly with regard to intelligence and physical appearance, seem to reinforce gender stereotypes. Why do you think this is?

Well, they are stereotypes for a reason. However, it’s not as simple as, “I avoid all women who are ambitious or intelligent.” It’s about, “Intelligence and ambition is OK until it supersedes my own.” It’s also worth mentioning that these are average effects — there are surely men who do not have this property. I like to think I’m one of them: my significant other is definitely a lot smarter than I am. When her grandmother heard about me, she said, “I told your mother this, and now I’m going to tell you: never let a man think you’re smarter than he is. Men don’t like that.” Everyone laughed and thought this was so anachronistic, but it shows up in our data. Grandma’s views on dating aren’t so dated after all!

Seems like this explains some interesting phenomenon in American dating. It confirms my impression that most Americans approach dating the way they approach shopping. I don't think that's a good thing.

I'd love to take some of these findings, build them into an agent-based model, and see how differing strategies among the agents compare against one another in finding a suitable mate.

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