Outside Edge: Date tips for the lovelorn stats nerd

19th March, 2011

The basket of goods and services chosen by Britain’s Office for National Statistics to calculate inflation provides a geek’s-eye view of the way we live. But it also reveals a kind of truth. Each year the list is updated to reflect spending habits, providing a glimpse of the nation’s changing soul, as expressed through its wallet.

This week, online dating was included for the first time. That feels right. Dating agencies were once the place losers went to date other losers: who else chooses to seek professional help in meeting people who have themselves been forced to resort to professional help? But now internet dating is YouTube to conventional dating’s three-channel TV, while speed dating provides a chance to quite legitimately make a pass at 20 people, in less time than it takes to watch a film.

But I detect a hidden agenda. Might not Britain’s lonely and lovelorn statisticians have an ulterior motive for combing over the mountains of data churned out by these dating media? Indeed, knowing the romantic insights these might allow them to exploit, might they not have lobbied hard to include them in the basket?

For let us be clear: these are data to bring a flush of passion to any statistician’s cheeks. Speed dating generates reams of evidence about who says “yes” to a second date, and why. Previously, such gold dust for the lonely-hearted required decades of covert surveillance, and a persuasive lawyer.

Web dating offers even larger troves, as researchers bestacnedrug.com comb digital profiles. From this, the psychologist Dan Ariely, and economists Ali Hortaçsu and Günter Hitsch, discovered that those in search of romance online claim to be implausibly rich, slim, blonde and beautiful; that men don’t reply to women who claim to earn high salaries; and that everyone should post a photograph – otherwise suitors draw their own conclusions.

Surely it is no coincidence that the nation’s lecherous statisticians have alighted on such data-driven tips for dating success. The number-crunchers are looking for love too, and they, of all people, know that numbers are their friends.

Yet, for real insight, these impassioned bean counters should turn to economists Michèle Belot and Marco Francesconi, whose work digs into the dos and don’ts of speed dating. Some conclusions may not be surprising: the women liked rich men; the men liked slim women. But their true insight is in showing how users react to market conditions. If pickings are slim, both men and women will quickly lower their standards, taking the best of whatever is on offer, even if the best is not terribly good.

This, then, is one sure-fire dating tip even the unloved of the ONS can take to heart. Forget about surreptitiously combing spreadsheets in search of that perfect romantic gambit. Instead, go speed dating – but bring a short, ugly friend with you.

The writer is a tall, blond non-smoking millionaire with above average looks and a GSOH.

Also published at ft.com.

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