Dating Data: Economic Theory and the Search for a Mate

How do people really select romantic partners? In a series of speed-dating studies, Professor Ray Fisman and colleagues found an economic mindset in dating preferences.
October 15, 2005
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Studies at Columbia on speed-dating — in which students characterized their ideal mate, briefly met with a series of prospective dates and then chose a suitor — shed sometimes uncomfortable light on how people maximize utility in the pursuit of love. Here, Professor Ray Fisman discusses the research findings, some of which are forthcoming in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Why do you think so little economic literature exists on the romantic-search process?

Search models are just very difficult to study, so theoretically, it’s a challenge. And empirically, we just don’t have good data prior to the advent of the Internet and speed-dating. It’s not because economists don’t care. There’s tons on marriage. Why? You have data on marriages from the census, so you know who’s marrying whom. What you don’t know is who’s driving the match, and that’s something we get at in our speed-dating studies.

How does economic theory apply to dating markets?

It’s interesting to talk to some economists about how they chose their mates, because it is a very economic decision: a person is a collection of attributes, I have preferences over these attributes, and I make some sort of utility-maximizing decisions. In moving from person 1 to person 2, I’m trading a little less of this for a little more of that, and I pick the one that makes me best off. It sounds like a coldly rational way to go about looking for someone, but there is at least some element of that to how we go through this process. It certainly describes how you would think about something like Internet dating, where someone very tangibly is a bundle of attributes and you can very clearly make comparisons of one person against another. And if I think about the way preferences are expressed in the speed-dating game, it seems like people are doing a fair amount of that. So people are bundles of attributes that are being compared against one another. That’s fundamentally an economic decision.

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.

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.

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.

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!

How significant are your results, considering the subject pool? How transferable are the results to Americans in general?

With anything to do with gender asymmetries, one would think this population would be the most liberated of all possible women. So, the fact that you still see consistent, statistically overwhelming differences in the way men and women choose dates suggests that there’s something deeper there. If I wanted to dig up a population where I least expected to see gender differentials, it would probably be something like the one we used. With all of the main results, if anything, I would expect bigger effects in the broader population.

What conclusions can you draw about dating preferences from the proliferation of specialized dating services that narrow searches to particular racial/ethnic/religious subjects?

It’s not a big surprise that shared interests is predictive of people liking one another. If it’s just a matter of efficiency, then yes, this has to be a good thing, because I can find more people in the relevant pool without spending too much time on it. But to the extent that it gets rid of cross-group matches that would otherwise have taken place — that now it’s so easy to find someone who looks, talks and acts just like me — then maybe we would say this isn’t a great thing.

Which results did you find most surprising?

For me, the most surprising thing was actually that in this population all of the old stereotypes — it doesn’t make you feel great about being a man — appeared in spite of the fact that we’re now in the 21st century and are looking at what should be among the most progressive, broad-minded of all possible populations. So that was a little sad, the fact that the stereotypes were all there.

What purpose do you intend for your research? Where do you go from here?

It’s certainly not going to divert my general research agenda, which is corruption, financial markets and development. But I think it is more than just a diversion. On these happiness surveys that have been done for decades now, a happy marriage is one of the best predictors of being a happy person. So it’s something that matters a lot. It really is, as we say in the introduction to one of our papers, the most important decision people make in terms of their happiness.

The speed-dating studies were conducted with Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar, associate professor of management; Emir Kamenica, a PhD student at Harvard; and Itamar Simonson, the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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