When the email arrived in my in-box, it was a no-brainer: Did I want to join Dan Ariely, the Predictably Irrational guru, for a salon-style evening of pizza and pontification on “The Science of Seduction?” in hopes of becoming a better dater?
Professor Ariely, a psychologist and behavioral economist at Duke University, has won fame and fortune debunking the myth that we act rationally about both the small and significant decisions that we make.
And what could be more irrational than romance? Despite myriad dating relationships, many of us are hard-pressed to describe why we’re having difficulty connecting and closing the deal on a romantic partnership. Instead, we continue to pursue a seemingly fruitless course for “the one,” getting increasingly discouraged that we’re still no closer to achieving our aim despite years of practice.
Could social science provide the clues to finding true love? The “Science of Seduction” write-up was full of tantalizing promises, stating that Ariely would answer such burning questions as: “Do opposites attract?” “How much do we really want to know about potential partners?” and the perennial crowd-pleaser “What is love?” — a question that has bedeviled humans from the time of the ancients to the iTunes era of Howard Jones, Haddaway, and Lea Michele, among others.
Wired for the Science of Seduction
I arrived early to claim my seat and was quickly joined by an array of singles and couples, including several of Ariely’s cheerful graduate students. Ariely, clad informally in a polo shirt and jeans, manned a mike just a few feet away from participants. He exuded surprisingly good chi given the fact that seven hours of flight delays landed him back in Durham, North Carolina, just that morning with a serious red-eye hangover.
Sticking It to You: Looks Do Matter
Proving that life lessons are the best teacher, Ariely opened with a simple exercise to demonstrate the power of assortative mating. Helpers fanned out and placed a sticky on the head of each participant. Our task was simple: Find someone of either gender whose number was either one greater or one less than the one emblazoned on our foreheads, without cheating.
I had a leg up on this task, as the teaching assistants hadn’t bothered to randomize the numbers. By virtue of studying the numbers dotting the foreheads of those opposite me, I knew my place in the pecking order: a solid seven. After being rejected by a 10, I got lucky and paired up with a thin blond earringed hipster who was an eight. In evolutionary terms, I was moving on up.
The ones in our group were not so lucky. “Lots of broken eye contact. Lots of rejection,” they moaned, and most were forced to settle for fellow ones. This exercise demonstrated what all of us have experienced in real life: The football jock typically goes for the blond and bubbly cheerleader with the perfect curves, rather than the teenage goth with the bad attitude and skin to match.
Rejected Online? Try Face-to-Face
So what about online dating? With a wealth of online platforms – Match.com, eHarmony, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish (now POF.com™) Tinder, GrindR, and JDate, to name but a few – love should now just be a numbers game. Process enough people, and you’re sure to find a match. Those of us who don’t inspire instant proclamations of love or at least wolf whistles from strangers should have better luck online, right?
Princess Barbie, Meet Dreamboat Ken
Unfortunately, a larger dating pool translates to even tighter standards. Men judge women by their beauty and BMI (body mass index), opting for women ranging from 16 (“slightly anorexic,” said Dr. Ariely) to 19. Meanwhile, women value income and height, cruelly disfavoring shorties. In fact, to date men who are 5’9” rather than their preferred minimum of 5’10”, women say they want the men to make an extra $40,000 a year. That’s almost as much as the average American’s salary.
When confronted with two profiles – one general and one specific – both men and women favor the candidate with vague interests and hobbies. It’s easier to imagine someone who likes movies and the outdoors as your ideal match than a Big Lebowski aficionado who does Tough Mudders. But the problem is that when online daters meet generalists in person, there typically isn’t a true connection. “People get devastated,” said Dr. Ariely. “They fill in the gaps and have high expectations and thus get disappointed more,” when it doesn’t work out with their intended.
Dating Strategies Differ by Gender
Speed dating provides another interesting microcosm to analyze dating behavior. Dr. Ariely and his team have run experiments with men and women in smaller groups, with eight of each gender, then moving them to larger groups, with 20 of each gender. Women adopt a “budget” strategy in the larger group, becoming more selective about whom they date, whereas men use a “threshold” strategy, expressing interest in anyone who passes their minimum standards.
Dating opportunities shrink when there are gender imbalances, said Dr. Ariely. He used an example of 101 women and 100 men, each armed with $10 to keep as income or find a mate, to illustrate how the men would end up with almost all of the money. Whichever gender predominates loses market power. Thus, “Small inequalities lead to large inequalities,” said Dr. Ariely, in environments like college or urban areas where women often outnumber men and gay men opt out of the heterosexual dating pool.
Same-Race Dating Limits Mate Selection
Racial preferences also limit dating options, said Dr. Ariely, with African-American women being the most disenfranchised. Some 40% of black women want to marry black men, but only 5% of black men feel the same way. And Asian women have no racial preference. As a consequence, both African-American women and Chinese men in the U.S. struggle to find same-race partners.
And on it went. We also covered arranged marriages; soaring STD rates with elderly online daters; and “MIT goggles,” or the end-of-college sprint to find highly intelligent partners who don’t mind marrying nerds. If the findings sound somewhat depressing, they were, despite being delivered in Dr. Ariely’s entertaining and conversational style.
So what were the key takeaways for someone who wants to use behavioral economics to his or her advantage and not get bested by big data?
Don’t Work the Numbers; Go for Authenticity
To succeed at romance:
- Go face-to-face: Stop competing in an online world and meet people in a wide array of natural settings. Think Meetup.com, not Match.com, to give romantic prospects a chance to engage with you, not just your demographic data. Ariely says a good sense of humor allows those of us who aren’t supermodels to compete more effectively with the genetically blessed in social situations.
- Be more open-minded: If you do use online dating, reconsider your preferences, such as race, income, and occupation, to cast a wider net. “People are experience goods,” concluded Dr. Ariely, but we “describe them as if they are laptops: height, weight, smoking. Online dating is like catalog reading.” Since meeting a varied range of people takes time, try using phone screening, fast and inexpensive coffee dates, shared-interest activities, and business groups, to connect with a varied range of people and increase the possibility of finding a love match.
- Reset your expectations: Optimizers endlessly seek for perfection, while satisfiers seek for someone who’s good enough. If you’re single and still in your 40s, it may be time to become a satisfier.
- Have real conversations: First dates can often be a fail, because people cast about for safe topics. Take a risk and share something personal, to see if you can make a connection.
- Watch behavior: Generosity, not good tipping, is correlated with being good in bed, said Dr. Ariely. So if your new partner does nice things for you, chances are you’ll be happy both in and out of the sack.
- Involve others in your mate selection: While love marriages start out happier than arranged marriages, they switch position in year three. And more than one in two love matches won’t last. So take a page from Indian culture and ask those important to you, including family and close friends, for dating recommendations or input on your dates.
So what did I learn from the “Science of Seduction?” No new strategies to improve my current relationship, alas. But it did bring back many memories of online dating. As a perennial Match.com user, I had found a few boyfriends online, been dumped more than a time or two, and had my fair share of truly miserable first dates. So the talk made me more grateful to be with my guy. My boyfriend and I can riff for hours about business, books, movies, pop culture, and politics, moving seamlessly from topic to topic, and laugh over something silly, like the fact that we both know the meaning of “twee.” That’s something that I’ve missed after years of more limited conversations.
So maybe the lesson is simply this: Life is better lived offline, whether you’re in a relationship or seeking one.