Economics seems to offer answers to most questions these days – I’ve always been fond of it as it applies to sex and relationships. Jessica Irvine is a New Zealand economics journalist who has laid out a good approach for recognizing when you’ve met “the one.” I think this is well worth thinking about, as we have witnessed the dilemma of women who decline to marry in their 20s, assuming there will be a steady stream of suitors in future. Recall Kate Bolick’s piece in the Atlantic:
Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck. A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again. This wasn’t hubris so much as naïveté; I’d had serious, long-term boyfriends since my freshman year of high school, and simply couldn’t envision my life any differently.
Andrew Leigh, an award winning economist in Australia:
You’re solving an ‘optimal stopping’ problem. You know you’ve found ‘the one’ when you determine that the expected quality of all future matches is lower than the value of your current partner.
Another economist was also highly practical in his choice of spouse:
‘In the process of choosing, my assessment was that my wife had the highest weighted-average of all the things I felt were important: looks, ‘compatibility’, kindness, inherent optimism, competence, diligence, and general enthusiasm for a happy life and family.’
To an economist, choices are about tradeoffs, finding the best overall outcome – the most pros with the fewest cons. The idea of settling doesn’t indicate you’re a loser – settling is something that each of us does every day, assuming our lives are not perfect and that we can not get everything we want.
According to Irvine:
It was an American free-market economist, Gary Becker, who in the 1970s first began extending these principles from markets for goods and services to market for potential partners.
He argued that the market for marriage was like any other, with individuals coming together to make mutually beneficial trades and to sign a contract ensuring future beneficial transactions. And because individuals compete for mates, a truly competitive market for marriage partners exists.
If you believe in finding your soulmate, then your strategy is to search until you’ve found the perfect match, but that’s very costly:
- It’s expensive.
- The longer you wait, the smaller the pool of eligible mates.
Economist Tim Harcourt agrees on the importance of realistic tradeoffs:
The economics of love or marriage is like search theory in the labour market. You start out with preferences about what you may like in a partner, but over time you may, if searching unsuccessfully, drop your ”reservation wage” – ie lower your standards – to settle on a job or love match.
The biggest risk in the marriage market is the expenditure of time, especially for women, whose fertility is limited. You can’t just buy a great catch on Craigslist – the shopping process is a time consuming one, and it may take a month or more just to determine that someone is not a good match.
Economist Nicholas Gruen observes that online dating is making the market much more efficient, and has the added benefit of producing a wealth of data:
[That data is] showing that dating is very like a market with strong ‘objective’ values around which assortative mating takes place.
(This reference to assortative mating refers to similar levels of intelligence and looks.)
Online dating matches occur mostly between people of similar sexual market value, so it can provide real information to people about their objective level of attractiveness. For obvious reasons, this is a far more accurate gauge than extrapolating from the pool of males who may be willing to hook up with you with no strings.
When two people find a person with the highest-weighted average of qualities they want in a mate, they fall in love. That is the optimal stopping point. The optimal stopping point has many other applications in real life, including:
- Selling a house
- Hiring an employee
- Betting on a horse
- Trading options on the financial markets
Just for giggles, I’ll share with you the mathematical solution for deciding when to settle on a marriage partner. Known as The Marriage Problem, it establishes the maximum probability of selecting the best mate. The first step is in estimating how many potential partners you may get the opportunity to choose from. If you expect only one guy to fall for you, you should lock down the first promising candidate. That’s also the case if you expect two serious suitors. As your number of potential matches gets larger, depending on your attractiveness, you may hold out longer.
When the number of potential suitors is large, which is the default assumption for young women in The Marriage Problem, then the solution (via calculus) is to estimate that number, and reject the first 36.8% of suitors. Accept the next one who is better than all those you rejected.
A practical application might look like this:
A young woman of 21 would like to be engaged at 27 and married at 28, the average age of marriage for a female college graduate.
That gives her six years to find a husband. 36.8% of that time is about two years and three months.
She should reject all offers until she is 23 and 1/4, then accept the next guy who is better than all the men she rejected. That still gives her almost four years to find him. This strategy leaves little room for “playing around” or “just having fun” with guys in your 20s. It’s food for thought.
For the record, many older successfully married couples have reportedly used something very similar to this calculation in choosing their spouse.