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Master online dating by thinking like an economist

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Don’t need another hero.
By Rachel Feltman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Economic theories can really help you up your dating game. Promoting his recent book “Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating,” Paul Oyer wrote on how economic theories can be applied to the world of online dating. Here’s our take, borrowing from Oyer’s insights:

1. Market thickness: Move to the city 

When the ratio of buyers to sellers is a constant, research shows (pdf) that the probability of successful matches between the two is significantly higher when there are more of both. In the job market, employers and employees are more likely to be successfully matched if there’s a wider pool. After all, even if you have a 1:1 ratio, odds are not everyone in the employee pool will be perfectly suited to one company. If you increase the pool size, it follows that more of your job candidates will be suited—if not perfectly suited—to a company looking to hire.

It’s the same with dating: For a better shot at what you’re looking for, you have to enter as large of a pool as possible. Of course, in most cases you won’t be lucky enough to get a 1:1 ratio of people interested in dating each other, but you can always move to a city or neighborhood that’s skewed in your favor. Because nothing says “adulthood” like moving across the country to find more single ladies. A simpler suggestion from Oyer is to pick the biggest dating site you can find.

2. Adverse Selection: Maybe free is best

This is all about the buyer having more information than the seller. In the insurance world, adverse selection means that a smoker will get more value out of insurance, making them more likely to opt into it, raising premiums for everyone. That makes non-smokers less likely to opt in. Consider premium dating services: Those who feel incapable of meeting a partner (in person, or even on a free dating website) for one reason or another are more likely to pay a monthly fee. But if you end up with a high ratio of unattractive, mean or uncouth individuals, the available pool of singles in your dating service will scare away all the good ones. Since online dating can’t have a forced opt in (thank goodness), maybe it’s best to keep trying your luck for a bit longer in the free pool—it might be where all the good ones are.

Or, as Oyer says, you could consider adverse selection when deciding what to disclose to potential partners. Adverse selection means you should “beware of hidden information” and expect your dating prospects to do the same. Be careful how you word the tidbits you disclose right away. “Your idiosyncrasies will be cute to your significant other someday,” he writes, “but they are negative stereotypes to people who don’t know you yet.” Hide those Star Wars action figures before you take your profile picture; take them back out on date three.

Just kidding. Your Chewbacca lunch box is awesome.

3. Signaling: Know your worth, and prove it fast 

When you message someone on a dating site, you know how desirable you are as a partner—or you think you do, anyway. But the person you’re pursuing has no way of knowing whether you’re a keeper or not. To benefit from your skills, it takes more than just having them. You also have to convey them credibly and quickly. When you’re applying for a job, you attempt to signal your worth to a company with education and previous work credentials, as well as by showing them your best stuff in an interview. So when you have your first face-to-face with an online prospect, pull out all the stops and make a great first impression. Doesn’t that go without saying? If you think so, you’ve been out of the dating game long enough to forget how easy it is to make a terrible first impression. In fact, when mathematician Chris McKinlay used data mining and analysis to narrow online dating prospects down, he still had trouble finding “the one” until he made rules for himself—no drinking, no concerts or movies (being distracted from his date didn’t make for a good time), and no letting the meeting trail on after conversation had gone stale.

4. Search theory: Don’t wait too long

It can be hard to make the choice to settle down with someone, especially if you live in an area where the ratio of singles is skewed to favor your sex and orientation. But in Oyer’s book, he cautions against being too picky. “At some point,” he writes, “stop and love the one you’re with.” You need to search long enough that you understand the distribution of offers (don’t settle!) but once you feel like you know what’s out there, try to be realistic. And when you’ve got a good thing going, don’t let it go on the off chance something better will come along.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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