Looking for Love: Pucker Up and Carry On! … Economics 101

pucker-up-and-carry-onAlthough a sequel is never quite so clever, I can’t help but give the economics of love a second chance. As spring love fades like a wet t-shirt in the hot sun, I’m compelled to reflect on the shallow pool of love connections in America – online dating.  Because let’s be honest, if we can turn human affection into a tradable revenue-generating commodity, neoclassical theory knows no bounds.  Economists – 1, romantics – 0!  By the grace of modern technology, we can all rush to make guilt-free snap judgments of other human beings with a mere click of a mouse.  Gone are those inefficient hours wasted ‘getting to know the person,’ replaced by a science of algorithms that fits neatly into our modern day culture of multi-tasking.  I smile to think how Shakespeare might have twisted Match.com into his plot…’What’s in a username? That which we call rose128496046 by any other name would smell so sweet.’  Of course he would have mixed it up with a few appropriately placed emoticons along the way, but you get the picture.

Now that we’ve succeeded in putting love on a shelf next to our Cheetos and bottled water, let’s spin this pole dance into a useful lesson in economics 101.  As with all my exposés, it really boils down to a single unifying concept.  In this case, we can relate the benefits and costs of love as a commodity to a single market failure – information bias.  When markets don’t provide sufficient information on a product or service, consumers can’t make rational decisions.  And as we all know at this point, rational decision making is the keystone to neoclassical theory; without it, let the love dominos fall where they may!

Wide scale access to information is one of the major economic breakthroughs of the internet.  If I had all the time in the world, I could in fact avoid buying environmentally friendly products that suck…but clearly, some obstacles remain.  On the surface, we remove the information barrier by turning love into a tradable (and easily searchable) commodity.  We are able to filter thousands of potential mates in a single swoop of passion’s net.  As an example, I imagine true love’s kiss might have turned out a bit differently for Maleficient if she had someone other than that a-hole Stephan to turn to.  But as usual, I digress…

So the general idea is that information is power, and power translates into rational decision making.  Not so fast…  It’s not just any information, but accurate information that matters.  From an economic perspective, it’s comparable to the 57% growth rate Enron reported just before it went bust.  But what was illegal practice for Enron is accepted culture on the internet.  Anyone who’s dipped but a pinky toe in the online dating world can attest to this fact.

It’s not that this propensity to lie, cheat, and steal is new to online dating.  Researchers have been beating themselves up for years over the so-called self-reporting bias, or propensity of study subjects to misreport their key physical traits on a survey – age, weight, etc.  It doesn’t speak well to human nature that the only real solution to the self-reporting bias is to measure people directly and remove the opportunity to fudge the truth.  So from the perspective of rational decision making, if everyone lies, and everyone knows that everyone lies, can’t we somehow account for this as love consumers?  In other words, might we tighten the net so to speak and adjust our criteria to match the deceit?  For example, in the online dating world, a woman who self-reports as ‘about average’ could reasonably be assumed to be ‘full-figured’, or for a man that self-reports as 6 foot, we can reasonably assume that this represents his height in 10 inch heels on a good day.  But this introduces another well known conundrum in economics, which is best described as a ‘race to the bottom,’ whereby we all converge to 22 year old blond Olympic surgeons.

A good friend and fellow Tufts professor gave me the best advice yet about online dating.  She is an expert in the field, with the truth in the pudding – she married her OkCupid match.  Her advice was simple…you have to be willing to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince (or in my case, princess).  That is to say, there is no substitute for the human connection.  The only way to weed through the pile of potentials is to get out from behind your iPad pedestals and start kissing frogs. So my advice today for single students looking for love is simple – Pucker Up and Carry On! :*

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