Friday, October 13, 2006

Dating for Nerds

Economics is an amazing discipline because it has widespread applications in so many other fields (such as politics, science, history, religion, psychology and sociology). One of my favorites is dating. I have done some field research and while I'm no expert at dating I've learned some things over the years (and in one or two of Bryan Caplan's lectures) that I think could prove useful (or at least interesting) to L3 readers.

At its core, dating is a way to correct for asymmetrical information (you know yourself, but not her and vice versa). Many normal dating activities that some people find worthless or immaterial (holding the door open, paying for dinner, buying flowers) are actually vital. They are what economists call signaling.

Signaling is an activity where its value lies in demonstrating a fact even if the activity itself is immaterial. What you learn in an advanced mathematics course will probably never come up again but doing well in it demonstrates you are an intelligent person. Instead of merely declaring you are smart, you can show it and that is much more convincing. (An actor that doesn't not cry but merely says he is sad is a particularly vivid example.) The lesson is that small stuff matters.

Signaling is a complicated thing because you can do it too much and thus send other, unintended, signals. If you are applying for a job and you agree with those around you all the time, you might appear too eager to please even if you are easy to work with. In dating, asking about a woman's job or family is a signal that he's interested in her as a person. Asking a string of unconnected questions about her life shows he's not really interested in her, he just wants her to think that.

There is generally a clear interaction between firm and candidate where one tries to impress the other and then the roles switch and then they switch again. In all cases, it is clear who should be doing most, if not all, of the signaling. Thus the danger of over-signaling is smaller than it would be. But with dating, transitions between who is "dominate" is continuous and rarely clear. This is particularly common in the initial dates an so are the occurrences of over-signaling. Avoiding questions she asks about him so he can ask her more questions makes him appear overeager; he didn't see that at that point she was now sending signals to him that she was interested. He didn't open up, which can also send signals that are not good.

Signaling is a very hard concept to master (I'm still learning myself) unless you are a person that has an intuitive grasp of it. Though signaling is not all of dating (getting to know people directly without signaling is important, too; that's what all that talking is about) it's still more significant than many people think. While it's important to relax, it's equally important to be aware that you could be sending bad signals. Finding that balance between alertness and being yourself is the essential learning process.

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