Confess Manchild: how game theory applies to dating…

Welcome back y’all!

I got so excited writing about game theory I’m going to write about it again, this time focusing on how it applies to a world I’m quite intimate with: the world of modern dating.

Yesterday I was trying to explain game theory to someone I met while writing, and I realized another way to think about it is to ask a question: based on what is likely to happen in the future and how people will react to that event(s), how can I get what I want–what can I do to change the outcome?

So what do people want in the world of modern dating? Based on what I’ve heard in person, on dating app profiles, etc., it seems to me that most single women (as a straight, single man, these are the profiles I see/people I meet) are looking for a serious, long-term relationship, and they’re quite straight forward about that fact (“no hook-ups”; “not looking for Netflix and chill”; “please have your shit together”), whether on their dating profile or on the first date.

But is this the best strategy?

On the surface it seems pretty smart, presumably warding off men just looking to hook-up–and to some degree this aspect probably works: after all, Hookup McBrofield who’s looking for quick sex on Tinder is unlikely to swipe right on a bunch of women who make it clear they’re looking for a serious relationship.

The problem, however, is the “I’m serious/looking for a long-term relationship” line is going to ward off a lot of conscientious, successful men as well–presumably the exact kind of person these women would want to date. Why?

Think about it this way: saying “I’m looking for something serious” on your dating profile or a first date is basically asking for an unspecified, long-term commitment from someone you don’t know. If we apply game theory and think about how people are likely to respond to a person they don’t know asking for a unspecified, long-term commitment, it’s not good.

More specifically, it’s because right off the bat this guy–every guy who interacts with this woman or sees her profile–has to make a choice: am I willing to invest in the sort of time/commitment this woman wants? Because now it’s not just a simple date: this is serious. There are expectations. And if there is a date–or even multiple dates–there’s added pressure all the way through, because you know for a fact she’s looking for marriage.

The other part of game theory–how multiple events and the passage of time affects behavior in the long run–doesn’t favor this strategy either, as there’s added pressure not just for the potential suitor, but also for the individual woman. Because she wants something serious–she’s told herself that–and yet: she’s single. Over time, this can lead to frustration, desperation, bitterness, etc., any of which may peak their ugly heads into their dating profile bio or on a date, becoming a sort of vicious cycle.

So what’s the right approach?

There’s some new scientific evidence suggesting that the key to good luck is an open mind. Read the article if you’re want to dig deeper, but the TL;DR is that people who enter situations without having a pre-planned outcome in mind are open to opportunities other people aren’t even aware of. One way to think of it is this: if I go to a wildlife refuge with my heart set on seeing a certain kind of bird who’s extremely rare, I’m going miss or not enjoy seeing all the other birds/wildlife as much, which may include an event or species even more rare/special.

So the key for dating is openness to experience. It’s perfectly legitimate to say who you are, what you like to do, etc. on a dating profile or first date–it’s just that we get into trouble when we start trying to specify what we’re looking for, and the more specific we are the more likely it is we miss the diamond in the rough looking for our ideal hypothetical archtype.

Also, the truth is that we generally don’t know what we want anyway. This is born out by scientific data, but it’s also because life is so unpredictable.

Consider the following parable about a Chinese farmer:

Once there was a Chinese farmer who worked his poor farm together with his son and their horse. When the horse ran off one day, neighbors came to say, “How unfortunate for you!” The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

When the horse returned, followed by a herd of wild horses, the neighbors gathered around and exclaimed, “What good luck for you!” The farmer stayed calm and replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

While trying to tame one of wild horses, the farmer’s son fell, and broke his leg. He had to rest up and couldn’t help with the farm chores. “How sad for you,” the neighbors cried. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” said the farmer.

Shortly thereafter, a neighboring army threatened the farmer’s village. All the young men in the village were drafted to fight the invaders. Many died. But the farmer’s son had been left out of the fighting because of his broken leg. People said to the farmer, “What a good thing your son couldn’t fight!”

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” was all the farmer said.

The point is we can’t predict with any certainty how events will play out over time, and when it comes to dating, the more certain we are about who/what we want, the less likely we are to find ourselves in a successful relationship–because it’s likely we’ve written off people who are great matches.

That’s not to say women (or men for that matter) should just hookup with every person they go out with or change their values–and if you’re looking for something serious, that’s fine–but it’s better to clarify that as the relationship develops rather than making it a front-loaded ultimatum.

The final thing is that our society has framed anytime a woman has sex with a man outside of an exclusive, monogamous relationship as a loss–and it’s just not. It’s a double standard that’s a relic of shittier times–utter nonsense–and yet many women hold themselves prisoner to that idea.

Again, use game theory: if a woman has sex with a man, and in the end, that relationship doesn’t work, what’s lost? If they use protection and are careful, absolutely nothing. Maybe it was good, ok, or bad, but if it’s over–it’s over–and has no impact whatsoever on whether either of them can find a successful long-term relationship in the future.

Well, that’s all I have to say about that… for now.

Thanks for reading! Cheers!


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