Love is blind, unless you’re an economist

18th February, 2012

Did you have a good Valentine’s day?
Very good indeed, thank you. After all I am married, and also an economist.

Neither of those attributes immediately points to an enjoyment of Valentine’s day.
Au contraire, many people find Valentine’s day miserable. Single adults have their noses rubbed in cloying faux-romanticism; insecure teenagers count their Valentine cards; dating couples feel under pressure to produce romantic gestures on a day when such gestures ring hollow. It is really only the married people who can view the whole festival with equanimity.

Equanimity is one thing, pleasure is another. Why would you derive joy from other people’s misery?
I have been perusing the happy-nomics literature and apparently I am supposed to feel happy when those around me have less money than I. I am trying to shed my textbook economic rationality and join the human race, and apparently the way this is done is to enjoy invidious situations. I am not sure why.

You may have got the wrong end of the stick. And you have not explained why economists are well-equipped to enjoy Valentine’s day.
My friend, we are masters of the arts of love.

You make it sound as though Keynes’s General Theory should be filed alongside The Joy of Sex and the Kama Sutra.
Well, Keynes’s contemporary Joseph Schumpeter was fond of saying that he had vowed to be the greatest economist in the world, the greatest horseman in Austria, and the greatest lover in Vienna … and that things were not going well with the horses.

Very droll.
Schumpeter is not the only romance expert in the economics profession. Take Hugo Mialon, who just recently published, in Economic Inquiry, “The Economics of Faking Ecstasy”.

Sounds useful.
It isn’t, really, although it’s clever.

Clever but useless? Sounds like, oh, every economics paper ever published.
Touché. But Michèle Belot and Marco Francesconi’s article, “Can Anyone Be ‘The’ One?” is economics you can use, at least if you go speed-dating.

Tell me more.
Belot and Francesconi’s research is based on data supplied from the UK’s largest speed dating agency, based on many hundreds of fleeting conversations, a treasure-trove of information about who wants a second date with whom. To cut to the chase, you are more likely to find a romantic partner if you are a well-educated non-smoker. If you are a man, it helps to be tall and rich. If you are a woman, it helps to be slim.

You’re not exactly shattering stereotypes here.
Perhaps so, but it is good to find out what the data really say. Belot and Francesconi also discovered that dating success is relative to the attractiveness of the other people in the room. In other words, if you want to succeed at speed dating, bring a short ugly friend with you.

All duly noted, but speed dating is a bit of a fad, isn’t it? Surely the real action is online.
Economists have also been studying internet dating. Dan Ariely, a psychologist, alongside a pair of economist colleagues, once published a splendid analysis of what works in online dating by scraping information off dating websites.

Lying, I would imagine, is the way forward.
Well, yes, lying does work – albeit that Ariely and his colleagues aren’t able to see how the dates themselves pan out, merely whether a particular ad is garnering attention. But the they did discover that the typical user of online dating websites claims to be richer, slimmer, blonder and prettier than the rest of the population. It’s a Lake Woebegon world, online dating.

Any practical advice from Ariely?
Posting a photograph is a very good idea. No matter how hideous you might think you are, people will draw regrettable conclusions if you do not supply a picture. Ariely argues that online dating is poorly designed, in any case, because it relies on matching database-friendly categories of “interests”. Actually finding out whether someone is a good match would be much more easily done if, for instance, the dating website showed each of you some conversation pieces – music, art, stories, jokes – and encouraged you share your reactions with each other online. Why not show this article to the next person you date and see what he or she makes of it?

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