5 tips for success: An economist’s guide to online dating


Thanks to the meteoric rise of smartphones and tablets, online dating is no longer just the preserve of desperados and the socially inept. Yes, internet matchmakers are now trusted alternatives to such time-honoured seduction techniques as the annual tryst with Lucy from accounts at the office Christmas party, trying it on with your best friend’s sister or the 2am gutter trawl on your local dance floor.

Yet, this brave new world requires an altogether new approach if success is to be assured. And who better to ask for dating advice than economists? Strip it back and the dating market is the same as any other: it’s about two parties coming together to make a mutually beneficial exchange, whether that is phone numbers, wedding rings, or, erm, something else. Looking to boost your chances of online love? Here are 5 tips from an economist’s perspective.

1. Sell yourself like you sell your car

One famous economic model throws harsh light on the basic problem of any type of dating: information. Or lack of it. This is the ‘Lemons problem’, a famous economic idea first proposed in the 1970s by George Akerlof, about cars, not citrus fruit. The basic premise is that if sellers can evaluate the quality of a used car but buyers can’t, the likely outcome is that both buyers and sellers know that only the most awful cars will be traded in the market. Everyone will assume that the only reason you’re selling the car is because it’s a dud; and genuine sellers with decent offerings know they won’t get the price they deserve, so never bother.

Yet, there is still a secondhand car market, because the lemons problem can be countered with information. Your level of interest in a car reflects the level of information you’re able to find out about it. Does it have a full service history? How many previous owners? Any tell-tale scrapes on the bodywork? And so it is with online dating: you’re less likely to be interested in someone who seems reluctant to share information about themself.

The lesson: no information = bad news, so tell people about yourself. And post a picture. Few will believe that the camera lens hasn’t clicked recently. And if you want to test drive on the first date, well, that’s up to you…

2. Avoid a ‘bad equilibrium’

It’s all very well telling people about yourself, but what exactly should you tell them? Behavioural economist Dan Ariely and his colleagues looked at the interactions of online daters, picking apart the emails potential suitors have sent to each other. He found that rather than try and separate themselves out from the crowd, people stick to universally shared interests, like food, the weather, hobbies and the “what do you do for a living?” question.  In essence, people favour the friendly over the controversial.  Whilst that gives us topics that are easy to talk about, it far from guarantees an interesting conversation, let alone a good match. A ‘bad equilibrium’, in economist speak.

To test whether a different approach might yield better results, Ariely and friends decided to push hesitant daters overboard, by giving them a list of pre-set questions that were more interesting and personally revealing, such as: “how many romantic partners did you have?”, “When was your last breakup?”, “Do you have any STDs?”, “Have you ever broken someone’s heart?”. Daters could not deviate from this list and were forced to risk it by posing questions outside of generally accepted bounds. Their partners responded, creating much livelier conversations where both the sender and the receiver were happier with the interaction.

Yes, the use of common sense applies here, but there is a lesson: be bold and try not to let conversations gravitate towards the boring end of the scale. Your personality is your defining weapon. It’s what makes you who are you are and sets you out from the crowd – it’s your USP. So use it. What is it about you that makes you, well, you? Sure, not everyone will get it, but who cares? If you’re looking for that one special person, you don’t need to appeal to the masses. Just show people who you are, be proud of it, and your target market will come to you.

3. Be choosy

Having fun comes with an opportunity cost. Serial dating is fine (cereal dating isn’t), but just remember: each guy or girl you spend time with on the off-chance that they might be Mr or Miss Right is time you could have spent with someone who is Mr/Miss absolutely, unequivocally, straight-A- 100%-correct-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt!

So give someone a chance by all means, but don’t spend weeks/months/years of your life with someone purely due to inertia. That is all.

4. Care about your reputation. It’s a sunk cost that is hard to get back

You’re young, dumb and full of, erm, enthusiasm for the dating game. Do what you like, I don’t care. But some people might. A bad reputation is difficult to shake off – just ask Blackberry. After the ‘Blackberry Blackout’ of 2011, consumers defected to Apple and Android in their droves, whilst Research in Motion’s (the company who make Blackberry devices) fortunes have never recovered.

Sure, it’s brought out new phones and beefed up its systems. It’s a reformed character, with past misdemeanours well and truly behind it. Really. But once the seed of doubt has been sown in people’s minds, it’s hard to stop it from germinating.

And so it is with the dating game. You might not want to settle down now, but you also may not feel that way forever. Economically speaking, building your house on morally iffy foundations sends a signal of future fidelity risk to potential suitors, even if you do get the builders in to shore everything up after a spate of subsidence. So having one eye on the future could well pay dividends. If your stock begins to plummet, it only gets harder to persuade people who are worth partnering up with to invest in you.

5. Guys – make sure you supply what the market demands

In years gone by, the world was simpler for many menfolk. Historically, men were judged on their ability to create wealth and materially support a family – financial success meant that success with the ladies increased proportionately. Financial security was a man’s biggest asset, as in the past, standalone financial success was harder to come by for women.

However, the sexual marketplace has changed significantly in recent decades, thanks to labour market equality and sexual liberalism. The rise of the economically independent woman means that the success or failure of a relationship is much less closely tied to the man’s ability to provide for his partner financially; for women, the game has changed. A fat wallet alone can be overshadowed by such traits as knowing one end of a vacuum cleaner from the other and how to cook spaghetti bolognaise from scratch.

Economists aren’t exactly first in the queue when it comes to the traditional image of the lothario, so anyone waiting for economics to reveal the secret of what women want will be waiting for a while. But, economics does tell us that the key to surviving in a changing market is adaptation.

So, how can the modern man adapt to survive in the brave, new dating world? Targeted product differentiation might be one strategy.

Follow point 2, above, but with a twist. Add to it by telling the girls something about you that you’d never share with the lads – a bit of risk could be what’s needed here. Accomplished in the kitchen? Penchant for Audrey Hepburn films? Secretly give money to the local cats’ shelter, because you just can’t bear to see cute kittens suffer? Setting yourself apart from the competition is the key, so go for it – it might just work…

Now, I’ve outlined 5 tips here, but with decades of modern economic theory behind us (longer if you’re a fan of Adam Smith), this is by no means an exhaustive list. And of course, your strategy may well depend on whether you’re looking for long-term love or a short-term liaison. Not sure what you’re looking for? Well, we all know what Keynes said about the long-run…

Any more tips? Add to the list in the comments box below!

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