Business Life: The economics of dating

13th November, 2007

First published in Business Life magazine, May 2007

Do you believe that there is one special person out there, someone who is the perfect match for you? If so, perhaps you should flip to a different page, because your hopes and dreams are about to be scrutinised by the most unlikely researchers: economists.
The economics profession’s standard excuse for poking around in matters of the heart is the close connection between family stability and economic success. The truth is probably a bit different: where once economists only had data on inflation and unemployment, now they have data on dating. Which would you rather study?
Speed date evenings are one of the best sources of this new data. If you’ve ever been on a date that was obviously a disaster from the first three minutes, you’ll understand the attraction of speed dating; on a speed date, you only meet each person for three minutes anyway. At the end of the evening you tell the organisers which people you liked, they later connect mutually-attracted couples.
Economists have realised that speed dates provide the sort of data about who likes whom that you would normally only acquire with binoculars, years of research and a great lawyer. Two researchers, Michèle Belot and Marco Francesconi, persuaded speed dating companies to share their data. Belot and Francesconi recently published their research with the intriguing title, “Can anyone be The One?” The answer, I’m afraid, is “just about anyone, yes.”
They studied 3600 people at 84 speed dating events. They were able to see who went to which event, and who liked whom. Some of the findings weren’t surprising: women seem to be choosier, proposing a match half as often as men. It will shock nobody to hear that tall men, slim women, non-smokers and professionals received more offers.
But what might raise the odd eyebrow is the discovery that speed-daters systematically change their standards depending on who shows up for the speed date. Although women prefer tall men rather than short men, on evenings where nobody is over six feet, the short guys have a lot more luck. Most people prefer an educated partner, but they will propose to school drop-outs if the PhDs stay away.
If people really were looking for a partner of a particular type, we would expect them to respond to the absence of such people by heading home with a disappointed shrug and hoping for better luck at the next speed date. Instead, people respond to slim pickings by lowering their standards. So if you really believe there’s just one special person out there for you, you’re more patient than the rest of us.

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