An economist solves the mysteries of dating.

The search for better economic policy.
Nov. 7 2007 12:00 PM

An Economist Goes to a Bar

And solves the mysteries of dating.

When economists began broadly applying their theories of rational choice-making, love and marriage were among the first areas they colonized. Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker laid the foundations back in 1973 with his two-part article "A Theory of Marriage." Becker imagined society as an immense cocktail party with rational-minded daters searching for the most desirable partner who would have them. His analysis predicted a pattern of "positive assortative matching," where men and women of similar desirability would partner with one another.

While models of dating have proliferated in the years since Becker's pioneering work, we have not progressed very much in testing his theories, or even answering the most basic dating question, for Becker or anyone else: What, exactly, makes someone desirable? There are, of course, the answers that get regular reinforcement: Men value looks; women value brains, money, and success. But do these old-fashioned stereotypes continue to hold today (if they were true to begin with)?

To figure this out, you could do "field work" at a local bar to observe the choices people make in real dating situations or sift through archived marriage announcements to see who chooses whom. But observed dating and marriage choices are at least as much a result of whom we meet as what we prefer. Doctors marry doctors, lawyers marry lawyers, and economists marry economists, probably not because they actually prefer to do so, but because those are the people they meet in daily life. The same may be true of the tendency to marry someone of one's own race or religion.

To really understand what people prefer, you need to pair men and women randomly in an experimental dating service and document the decisions they make. And so for a couple of years at a local bar just off the Columbia campus, I ran a speed-dating experiment with two psychologists, Sheena Iyengar and Itamar Simonson, and fellow economist Emir Kamenica. Some of our findings confirm well-worn clichés. But others surprised us.

Speed dating is matchmaking on, well, speed—each male-female pair (we stuck to heterosexual couples) meets for four minutes to size each other up, at which point a whistle blows, signaling the men to get up and move on to the next woman. After each "date," participants decide if they'd like to see their partner again. For our study, we also asked them to rate their partners' intelligence, looks, and ambition after each meeting. Each event had between 10 and 20 daters of each gender, and in the course of the evening, every man met every woman and vice versa.

After two years of serving as academic love brokers, we had data on thousands of decisions made by more than 400 daters from Columbia University's various graduate and professional schools. By combining all of our choice and ratings data with separately collected background information on the daters, we could figure out what made someone desirable by comparing the attributes of daters that attracted a lot of interest for future dates with those that were less popular.

With the obvious qualification that we're talking here about a four-minute version of love and dating, we found that men did put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner's beauty, when choosing, than women did. We also found that women got more dates when they won high marks for looks from research assistants, who were hired for the much sought-after position of hanging out in a bar to rate the dater's level of attractiveness on a scale of one to 10.

By contrast, intelligence ratings were more than twice as important in predicting women's choices as men's. It isn't exactly that smarts were a complete turnoff for men: They preferred women whom they rated as smarter—but only up to a point. In a survey we did before the speed dating began, participants rated their own intelligence levels, and it turns out that men avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves. The same held true for measures of career ambition—a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.

When women were the ones choosing, the more intelligence and ambition the men had, the better. So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own. Women, on the other hand, care more about how men think and perform, and they don't mind being outdone on those scores.

Another clear gender divide, this one less expected, emerged in our findings on racial preferences, reported in a forthcoming article in the Review of Economic Studies. Women of all the races we studied revealed a strong preference for men of their own race: White women were more likely to choose white men; black women preferred black men; East Asian women preferred East Asian men; Hispanic women preferred Hispanic men. But men don't seem to discriminate based on race when it comes to dating. A woman's race had no effect on the men's choices.

Two wrinkles on this: We found no evidence of the stereotype of a white male preference for East Asian women. However, we also found that East Asian women did not discriminate against white men (only against black and Hispanic men). As a result, the white man-Asian woman pairing was the most common form of interracial dating—but because of the women's neutrality, not the men's pronounced preference. We also found that regional differences mattered. Daters of both sexes from south of the Mason-Dixon Line revealed much stronger same-race preferences than Northern daters.

Does all of this rational-choice stuff take the romance and mystery out of romance (just as some have accused my fellow economist Joel Waldfogel of taking the Christmas spirit out of Christmas)? I hope not. Our purpose is to understand how life-long relationships are formed. The first step in helping people find love and happiness is to figure out what they're really looking for in the first place.

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