The Rules

23rd July, 2005

Dear Economist,

I’m struggling with the dating game. I am told that one of the “rules” is that I shouldn’t accept a date for Saturday night unless I’m asked out by Wednesday at the latest. The idea, apparently, is to give the impression that I’m busy. Needless to say, I’ve missed out on the last three potential dates. Is this rule really wise?

— Bridget, London

Dear Bridget,

You have the right rule but the wrong explanation. You think that the rule is designed to signal unavailability. However, any game theorist will tell you that a credible signal has to be prohibitively costly to fake. This would be the case if only genuinely busy girls were able to refuse last-minute dates. If a signal can be easily faked it’s not much of a signal, and since any wallflower can pretend to be busy, the signalling value of such pretence is zero because no man will pay attention to it.

The true role of the rule is not signalling but screening. The “no last-minute dates” rule automatically disqualifies any man who is inconsiderate, short-sighted or just not particularly into you. Screening theory, which won enfant terrible Joe Stiglitz a share of the Nobel prize in 2001, recognises the fact that without some foolproof system, women are incapable of telling a Mark Darcy from a Daniel Cleaver.

Admittedly, since you are ruling out dates with all the cads, the number of first dates you accept will fall – perhaps precipitously, depending on the proportion of playboys in your orbit. But the dates you do have will be quality-controlled: you will cut out all that unnecessary flirting, dressing up and snogging in the car at the end of the date, and replace it with long, steady relationships with reliable men. This is what you want, isn’t it?

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